Published: April 20, 2020
When I devoted my February column to biodefense research, I had no idea how timely that piece would be. It touched on studies at the Department of Energy's Pacific National Laboratory that seek to unravel the disease-causing mechanisms of pathogens — even if they were previously unknown — and how that research could lead to new diagnostics and treatment.
Fast forward to today, and we see the devastating impact of COVID-19 around the world and close to home.
At PNNL, we are exploring additional ways to apply our expertise, research and technology to help address this global pandemic.
When COVID-19 was first detected in Washington state, we were requested to provide immediate assistance to local emergency response efforts in King County.
This engagement leveraged capabilities and relationships built over the years through our ongoing support to these stakeholders.
Our efforts to expand testing capacity with PNNL biosecurity expertise and equipment is evidence of our ability to adapt to meet critical challenges.
For example, the chemicals called reagents that are used in tests to isolate the genetic code of COVID-19 are in high demand and short supply.
Our scientists are working with collaborators to identify and validate safe and accurate alternatives to conventional reagents for COVID-19 tests.
The same team has also proposed a project to evaluate blood-based tests to determine whether a person has been infected, with or without presenting symptoms, which would allow faster screening of individuals seeking to return to work.
PNNL's longer-term research focuses on improving diagnostics and treatment. Under the auspices of the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease, PNNL scientists are working to determine the structures of many of the 27 individual proteins in the virus that causes COVID-19.
Their work could help identify weaknesses in those structures and opportunities to disrupt the inner workings of the virus that control how it infects, replicates and spreads, aiding the development of vaccines and therapeutics.
The researchers are using a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to see a single protein in incredible detail, even looking at specific segments of the protein and monitoring their response during experiments.
A computer then calculates the position of every single atom in the data collected, reconstructing three-dimensional views of the protein — results available to the scientific community through a public database.
Other research is based upon PNNL's studies of the biomarkers of disease, including work to identify the disease-specific molecules that indicate a body's response to breast cancer or diabetes, for instance.
More directly, researchers are leveraging PNNL studies following the deadly 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, in which they identified biomarkers that accurately predicted which Ebola victims survived the deadly virus and those who did not.
In collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, PNNL researchers will analyze inactivated COVID-19 samples in hopes of using the same approach to identify biomarkers that determine which COVID-19 patients might need additional care most urgently and which are most likely to recover on their own.
Finally, researchers at Battelle, which manages and operates PNNL, have developed an exciting technology to address the shortage of N-95 masks for medical professionals.
While not a PNNL innovation, the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System™ can decontaminate the same masks multiple times so they can safely be reused.
The system can process as many as 80,000 masks per day and has been deployed to hot spots around the country, including Seattle.
From supporting local businesses to helping elderly neighbors or volunteering at the food bank, I am impressed by how our community is responding to the challenges created by COVID-19.
I hope you also share my pride in the role DOE and PNNL are taking in the fight against this new disease. Meanwhile, please stay home and stay healthy.
Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.
Published: April 20, 2020