Ohio State researchers explore manufacturing alternatives for critical COVID-19 supplies

mhuson COVID-19, Faculty Awards, General


The Institute for Materials Research(IMR) is again teaming up with centers and institutes across The Ohio State University to rapidly respond to shortages of swabs used in testing for the causative agent of COVID-19.


Led by IMR, researchers from the Center for Design Manufacturing Excellence (CDME), Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center will work to increase the production and improve the effectiveness of COVID-19 testing by redesigning nasopharyngeal swabs used to detect the novel coronavirus, while reimagining the manufacturing process by which those swabs are mass produced.


Investigators on the project include Jay Sayre, IMR Director of Innovation and research associate professor in Materials Science and Engineering; Nate Ames, CDME Executive Director; Seth Faith, IDI Strategic Alliance Officer; and Eric Adkins, Associate Chief Clinical Information Officer at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.


The team received $50,000 in funding from the university’s Office of Research, College of Engineering and College of Medicine to continue their efforts.


“This support from across the university allows our team to help improve the health of Ohioans by providing frontline health workers an abundant, reliable supply of nasopharyngeal swabs for the foreseeable future,” Sayre said.


IMR, CDME, IDI and Ohio State Wexner Medical Center first began working together in March. The collaborators’ goal was to rapidly develop a supply chain capable of 3D printing, testing and distributing tens of thousands of the urgently needed swabs for COVID-19 test kits. The team delivered. Since mid-April, they have facilitated the production and distribution of at least 200,000 swabs for use at the medical center and throughout the state.


Still, looking ahead, concerns over shortages in the face of potential increases in demand loom.


Now, experts at Ohio State are investigating another route to continue ramping up swab production called injection molding, which could provide a more practical, cost-effective alternative to 3D printing.


Injection molding is a manufacturing process in which molten materials, such as plastic, are injected into a cavity, where the product’s shape stabilizes as it cools and hardens.


The research team expects this manufacturing process to eliminate constraints that come with 3D printing techniques by developing a new, rapid product development and clinical testing cycle.


“Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are well tailored for rapid prototyping and low volume serial production,” Ames said. “But injection molding is the go-to manufacturing technology for producing millions of polymer components at an affordable cost point.”


One major objective for researchers is reducing the frequency of false-negative results that can occur in testing.


The group aims to do this by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the sample collection process. Engineers will focus on identifying design options and material alternatives for the swab heads, as well as testing new manufacturing processes that inject two or more different materials into a single cavity mold.


As IDI’s strategic alliance officer, Faith serves as the research group’s main connection to his institute’s numerous resources and experts.


“The Infectious Diseases Institute will provide subject matter experts in virology and molecular testing, reaching into its community of more than 230 principal investigators, as needed,” he said. “Further, the newly established Applied Microbiology Service Laboratory, a partnership of the IDI and the Department of Microbiology, will potentially assist in testing swab prototypes for compatibility with the industry standards in diagnostic testing, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR).”


Researchers redesigning the swabs will also consider other infectious agents and biospecimen types beyond those typically considered in relation to coronavirus testing, so that the new devices may be utilized in a wider range of cases and procurement in the future.


“Working with this multidisciplinary team from has been a great experience. The amount of teamwork and collaboration has been incredible with such brilliant people,” Adkins said. “Everyone involved has been very responsive and helpful in the process to make swabs available and working to improve the swab design. I’m very proud to be a part of this group.”


Story by Mike Huson, IMR Public Relations
Contact: huson.4@osu.edu
Follow: @OhioStateIMR | @IITB_OSU_FC