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BioCommunique Article

How researchers from top institutes and universities in San Diego are connecting through Slack channels to share knowledge and speed solutions to the pandemic.

SCREEN and SEARCH: Grass-Roots Initiatives Grow to Enable Rapid Collaboration and Innovative Solutions to COVID-19

  • 2020-04-16T21:51:00.000+0000
  • California
  • Author: Lauren Panetta

When Gene Yeo, PhD, a scientist and faculty member in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego learned of the emergence of SARS-Cov-2 in China, he feared the worst. Weeks later, the virus quickly spread and began infecting people in his hometown in Singapore. He knew it was only a matter of time before the virus would soon make its way to the United States.

In early March, social distancing measures began to take hold throughout California. Experiencing the challenges brought on by his own remote workplace, Dr. Yeo, who is also a resident member at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, recognized the need for a platform to connect staff within the institute. What emerged several phone calls, emails, and video conferences later, is a new outlet for scientists and clinicians to share information related to COVID-19 named The San Diego Covid Research Enterprise Network (SCREEN). SCREEN enables a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional group of more than 900 members from prominent research institutes and universities in San Diego, to hold discussions and rapidly bring forth solutions to the pandemic in a largely open forum.

The group uses Slack, a business communication platform, to connect, create channels, and share experiences virtually. Within a week of establishing the first channel, members within the network grew to 400, with individuals eager to volunteer their time and expertise in combating COVID-19. Today, the membership in the network continues to grow daily, with different channels to serve a variety of discussions. Clinical and research faculty are working to solve several issues, such as the scarce supply of medical and research equipment due to a burgeoning need to conduct thousands of viral RNA tests each day. Discussions within the channels have also sparked new research ideas and innovative ways to produce medical supplies needed by healthcare systems for COVID-19.

One incredible example of how this tool has proven its worth has been in creating nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs for research and clinical use to isolate viral RNA from participants. Identifying individuals with COVID-19, particularly health care workers, is one of the most crucial ways to stop the spread of the virus. In a collaborative effort by members of the SCREEN initiative from Neurophotometrics, Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute, and UC San Diego, the group designed and tested Fiberflex Rayon, a 3D printed NP swab that takes minutes to make. In testing, they discovered that the swabs successfully detected the virus in all of the patients tested, and that the 3D printed swabs were even more effective when compared to commercial swabs. Rady Children’s Hospital has since purchased 30,000 of the 3D printed swabs to replenish their supply.

In another example of collaboration taking place with no institutional borders, researchers at UC San Diego, Scripps Research and Rady Children’s developed the infrastructure for a large-scale research study. The San Diego Epidemiology and Research for Covid Health (SEARCH) is research screening healthcare workers in San Diego to continuously monitor front line healthcare workers against COVID-19. The initial goal of the study is to provide a speedy return to regular hospital operations. Phase 2 of the study will measure the spread of the virus in the broader community, and in the near future, antibody tests would be performed to determine who may be able to return to work. Such efforts, Gene says, require resources and leadership, but the hope is that if academics and the commercial communities in San Diego and other parts of California band together, we all can return to work safely and “normal life” can resume.

Biocom is proud to partner with leading research institutes and universities in bringing rapid collaboration through SCREEN. Learn more about the grass-roots collaboration efforts.