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Howard Gillman

Howard Gillman

The University of California-Irvine campus is bustling with activity these days, despite social distancing protocols, a ramp down of non-essential research and a move to online instruction for the rest of the academic year. 

From its research branch to its off-site medical center, which was one of the first to initiate clinical trials for a vaccine candidate in March, several groups are partnering with industry connections in efforts to combat the coronavirus. 

“We have many research groups working on COVID-19 efforts, and some groups that have been working on these issues before the pandemic arrived,” UCI Vice Chancellor of Research Pramod Khargonekar told the Business Journal. “We want to work with the rest of society to help stop this disease.”

“UCI is Orange County’s only academic medical center and only major research university. We were built to address challenges such as the one presented by this pandemic, by offering advanced treatment, urgently needed world-class research, innovative interventions, public service, and information you can rely on,” said UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman.

It’s not just research, officials stress. The school’s tech transfer branch has been active in translating ideas born out of the university into viable commercial products and resources.

“As envisioned when Beall Applied Innovation was launched in 2014, we are connecting crucial resources across campus, industry and the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and this capability is helping us to combat COVID-19 issues,” Richard Sudek, UCI chief innovation officer, said in a statement.

“The entire university has mobilized in service of our community at this moment of great need,” Gillman said.

Below is a roundup of some of the recent activity at UCI.

Microarray Testing 

UCI Professor Phil Felgner, director of the Vaccine R&D Center, is working with Chinese firm Sino Biological Inc. to produce genetic-focused microarray tests to distribute to China and international locations.

The COVID-19 Coronavirus Antigen Microarray test is a serological test that detects antibodies that are present in people who have had the virus. Unlike standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the microarray test does not require reagents or nasal swabs for sample collection; it uses a drop of blood, pricked from a patient’s finger, to detect COVID-19.  

The test was validated with the Vitalant Research Institute in San Francisco, which has been involved with several validation projects. 

The test aims to provide valuable information on patient exposure, including asymptomatic patients. A batch of 4,800 tests has been produced thus far. 

The test’s technology could also be adapted to provide detection via cellphones in the future, according to UCI. 

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Felgner is working with the Research Translation Group at Applied Innovation and has submitted a provisional patent for the technology.

Test Kit Materials

In a collaborative effort between UCI Medical Center and the university, a “mini task force” from the schools of physical sciences, biology and medicine, are working to create sample-preserving fluid for test kits.

In addition to the scarcity of test kits, materials ranging from swabs to reagent chemicals have been in short supply in recent weeks.

Professors and researchers used basic preservatives made of materials found in labs across the campus to create a “viral transport medium” or VTM, which preserves test samples for later analysis.

UCI Health is currently processing about 300 COVID-19 tests per day and each kit requires 2 milliliters of VTM.

The UCI team said it will make enough VTM for 16,000 test kits over the next month or so. The first shipment was set to arrive at UCI Medical Center by April 10.

Vice Chancellor Khargonekar said the effort was an example of “energy and speed with which people are rising to the challenges.”

Convalescent Plasma

A second effort underway at the Vaccine R&D Center: working to improve convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19 patients. 

Convalescent therapy involves collecting blood plasma from recovered patients and transfusing it to an infected person. Antibodies from a recovered patient can trigger an immune response to fight off the virus, researchers believe.

The research group aims to determine the efficacy of convalescent plasma in treating COVID-19, as well as optimal collection timing and dosing, according to a statement. 

The group is led by Concord-based Cerus Corp. (Nasdaq: CERS) with participation from the California Department of Public Health, Vitalant Research Institute, the California National Primate Research Center and Enable Biosciences.

It is currently unknown whether convalescent plasma will effectively treat COVID-19.

Drug Candidate 

UCI Health began clinical trials on an antiviral drug to treat COVID-19 in late March, the Business Journal previously reported. 

Clinicians are continuing to test the efficacy of the drug, called remdesivir, in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. The drug has shown promise in animal models for treating respiratory conditions such as SARS. 

Drugmaker Gilead Sciences Inc. issued a statement on April 4 with an update on supply and use for the drug, which is being administered as treatment on a compassionate basis for children and pregnant women. 

The company said more than 1,700 patients have been treated through its access program and now has 1.5 million individual doses produced or in the final stages of production. 

The current supply equates to over 140,000 treatment courses and will be provided at no cost, the company said.  

For more information about the trial, the public can go to ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04280705.

‘Bridge’ Ventilator

UCI Health physicians Brian Wong, Govind Rajan and Tom Milner, acting director of the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic initiated a plan to make a low-cost, easy-to-manufacture ventilator in late March. 

The group launched the Bridge Ventilator Consortium to accelerate efforts; participants now include the University of Texas, Richard Branson’s Long Beach-based aerospace company Virgin Orbit and Medline Industries.  

The “bridge” ventilator isn’t as high tech as other portable or non-ICU ventilators on the market. In fact, the first prototype was made with industrial parts including a Toyota windshield wiper motor.

They are designed to fill the gap for much needed ventilators until higher-end products are made, while meeting minimum safety standards for federal approval. 

A timeline for mass production hasn’t been disclosed, though federal approval is being streamlined, and the team said it would share design plans freely to manufacturers once approved.

Commercial Translation

Beall Applied Innovation said it is working to connect colleagues, businesses and resources for swift action on a variety of fronts.

One example: a partnership with the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Claire Trevor School of the Arts, with additional input from the nursing school, to produce face shields using 3D printers at The Cove. 

About 5,000 masks were shipped last week. 

Executive Director Sudek said he anticipates continued and increased entrepreneurial activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applied Innovation’s in-house startups are working to lend support to individuals as well: Mind Brain Parenting offers interactive card decks for child education and personal assistant app Wing continues to offer services such as grocery orders and errands for household staples.

Applied Innovation announced a call to action to problem-solvers and innovators in the community. Visit https://innovation.uci.edu/ covid-19-info. 

UC Call for Action

The UC Office of the President last week launched a statewide effort “to accelerate breakthroughs in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

UC will provide $2 million in seed funding to spur high-impact research projects.

Individual awards of up to $25,000 are available immediately, according to Theresa Maldonado, vice president of UC Research and Innovation. 

The awards are funded by research grant programs for breast cancer, tobacco-related disease and HIV/AIDS. Maldonado said it made sense to allocate these funds because people suffering from these conditions are the most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

To apply for research seed funding visit: https://news.research.uci.edu/vcr/ emergency-covid-19-research-seed-funding

—Jessie Yount

Resources for Entrepreneurs, Small Businesses

Online resources are available to entrepreneurs and small business owners navigating COVID-19-related issues.

• UCI Beall Applied Applied Innovation is hosting a series of online webinars with experts such as Visionary Ventures’ Jeffry Weinhuff.

• University Lab Partners at UCI Research Park has closed its doors to non-essential staff. The wet lab incubator continues to host virtual events focused on issues such as regulatory approval in life sciences and healthcare.

• Aliso Viejo-based business accelerator Octane is fully operational online and continues to help startups raise funds and establish industry connections. The organization was one of the first to reschedule its events and conferences last month.

• OC4 Venture Studio in Costa Mesa moved to remote work, with ongoing virtual events updated daily. One of its most popular events: a virtual session to discuss entrepreneurs’ biggest mistakes in the startup world.

• The Small Business Development Center is holding daily online briefings to help small businesses navigate changing legislation and relief efforts for COVID-19. 

—Jessie Yount

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