COVID-19 Response Fund: Cutting-edge technologies advance coronavirus fight

14 May 2020

Imperial researchers are driving forward the fight against coronavirus with new healthcare innovations and data insights.

Man speaking in front of computers
by Deborah Evanson, Stephen Johns

Imperial researchers are driving forward the fight against coronavirus with new healthcare innovations and data insights.

Research projects funded by Imperial’s donor-backed COVID-19 Response Fund include those advancing new technologies and using cutting edge data science to find ways for health services worldwide to respond to the crisis.

Professor Molly Stevens is leading another project funded by the COVID-19 Response Fund to develop a rapid test for COVID-19

Imperial’s COVID-19 Response Fund has funded projects ranging from exploring possible COVID-19 therapies and treatments, unravelling how the virus affects the body, and engineering new solutions for hospitals and healthcare workers.

The fund was seeded by central funding from Imperial’s  President’s Fund and has been supported by more than 400 donors to date. It is intended to bolster existing funding from government, charities, and philanthropists, providing rapid support to projects with the potential to make a major impact in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Several of the projects involve the development of new technologies and innovations to help in the fight against the deadly disease.

A smartphone test for COVID-19

Dr Pantelis Georgiou, Reader in Biomedical Electronics in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, along with colleagues from the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in the Department of Infectious Disease, are developing a smartphone based rapid test for COVID-19.

Dr Pantelis Georgiou

Dr Pantelis Georgiou

With the UK’s target of 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day, there is an urgent need to develop new accessible diagnostic tools that can be rapidly deployed in hospitals for testing front-line staff, enabling clinical management of infected patients and real-time tracking of the pandemic.

Dr Georgiou and his team have developed a cutting-edge ‘lab on a chip’ diagnostic platform using microchip technology that can be paired with a smartphone application to rapidly identify whether a person is positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA from a nasal or throat swab. The low-cost test would provide a portable alternative to conventional lab-based testing, allowing clinicians and nurses to diagnose patients at the bedside and in the community in real time.

The team will use the funding to validate their technology using clinical samples from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and establish a supply chain to support the scale up of their technology.

Dr Pantelis Georgiou said: Fast and accurate diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 is essential to overcome this current COVID-19 pandemic. Our technology delivers rapid and sensitive molecular diagnostics to the palm of your hand, enabling real-time identification of infected patients and surveillance to combat further outbreaks. This funding will allow us to significantly scale the technology to meet the current demand for diagnostics in the UK in addition to allowing a large-scale validation within Imperial NHS trust on COVID-19 patients.

Using 3D printing to protect frontline health workers

Imperial researcher Dr Ricardo Petraco and colleagues from the National Heart & Lung Institute and the Imperial Centre for Cardiac Engineering are aiming to help protect frontline healthcare workers by designing 3D printable components for face masks.

men wearing snorkel mask prototypes

The connector would enable other types of face masks, such as snorkels, to be used during higher risk procedures and highly infective environments

The first component is a connector that would enable other types of face masks, such as snorkels, to be used during higher risk procedures and highly infective environments, such as AE. Adapted face snorkels are ideal as they provide a breathing filter as well as full eye protection. They are also fully cleanable and reusable, and therefore can be used where there are shortages of normal masks.

The second component improves the sealing mechanisms of normal masks – improving their protectiveness for the wearers.

The absence of sufficient filtering protection against the virus leads to high rates of healthcare workers infection, workforce depletion and staff anxiety.

If the designs are successful, Dr Petraco, together with David Pitcher from Imperial Hackspace who is the 3D designer, will make their findings immediately and freely available for the international community to replicate the printing process.

Dr Petraco, a Consultant Cardiologist and Researcher, said: “Healthcare workers are exposing themselves to a very high risk of viral infection. There are concerns about shortages of protective equipment and poor fitting mask respirators.

“We want to test two simple 3D printable devices which, if successful, could improve the safety of current masks and reduce supply shortages.

“We hope to have national and global impact on the coronavirus pandemic by significantly improving the safety level of healthcare workers.”

Predicting the pandemic

Dr Aldo Faisal, Director of the UKRI Centre in AI for Healthcare and academic in the Departments of Bioengineering and Computing is using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence  to help analyse and improve clinical care for ventilated patients with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndome (ARDS) – one of the major complications of COVID-19.

Dr Aldo Faisal

Dr Aldo Faisal

The award enables the AI team to work on the Data Science for the National Service Evaluation Critical Care – an observational cohort study to characterise the ICU management of COVID-19 induced Severe Acute Respiratory Failure led by intensive care expert Dr Brijesh Patel in the Department of Surgery and Cancer and is lead for critical care research at the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust nationally commissioned severe respiratory failure ECMO service.

There is no current therapy for COVID19-ARDS besides supportive management in intensive care, and reports suggest that it evolves differently to previously seen causes of ARDS (such as influenza). This makes the intervention and treatment on critical care services hard to predict. This project will work with datasets being gathered from intensive care patients suspected to have COVID-19 from more than 20 NHS England hospitals, and use machine learning and AI to identify different strategies for treatment and work out which treatment works out for which patients. This may help clinicians improve survival, deterioration and intervention success.

Dr Aldo Faisal said: “The National Service Evaluation is a ground-up organised data gathering effort that will enable us to deploy AI in a truly national effort using high-resolution granular data from all the partner intensive care untis”.

Dr Brijesh Patel said: “Evaluating what we did during the first phase of the pandemic will truly advise us what to do with the ventilator and other treatments in future Covid-19 surges especially going into winter.”

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