COVID lab at UNH
Jeremy Gasowski
Put to the Test
UNH ecosystem makes COVID-19 lab a reality
Kelley Thomas says there are no words to describe how he felt, flipping on the lights in UNH’s COVID-19 testing lab at the end of August. After months of working around the clock with his team to establish the facility, Thomas, a professor of genomics and director of the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, saw that the lab was officially up and running. Students were back on campus. What they’d set out to do was working.

“There’s no practicing this,” says Thomas, who serves as the lab’s scientific director. “You can’t say, ‘send me 4,000 samples so we can try this out.’”

That meant starting off the semester by going from zero to 4,000. As in zero tests over the summer months to 4,000 — in a day. “Have you ever seen 2,000 test samples dumped out of a biohazard bag that’s been carried into the lab by two policemen?” Thomas asks. “That’s what happens — twice a day.”

But nothing less than that incredible velocity would suffice. Rick Cote, director of the Center of Integrated Biomedical and Bioengineering Research, is a member of the university planning team responsible for building out the facility. He says that the lab’s capacity to test with scale, precision and efficiency — right from the get-go — was crucial. It provides the timely data that makes essential efforts like contact tracing possible.

Early on in the process of developing the lab’s design and protocols, Thomas, Cote and their cohort of experts made the decision to move forward with the “gold standard” test in molecular diagnostics: RT-PCR, or reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction. Probes are able to swiftly identify the virus’s fingerprint in a small test sample by binding and copying its unique strands of genetic material. Since the DNA of COVID-19 genes continues to adapt and shift, the test actually looks for three different gene types, bolstering its accuracy. “It’s like a fingerprint test that uniquely identifies not just the thumb, but also the first and second finger,” Cote explains.

A Healthcare Highlight
A must-make stop on U.S. coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, MD’s recent tour of American colleges and universities? UNH’s proprietary COVID-19 testing lab, of course. During her Oct. 12 visit, Birx praised UNH for “answering the call” and safely opening campus for in-person learning. “I felt by the time she left she was impressed by what we’ve done,” recalls Marc Sedam, UNH vice provost for innovation and new ventures and a leader in operationalizing the lab. “She said, ‘Your students needed you and you’re one of the institutions in the country that answered that call.’” Straight from a visit to Plymouth State University, where her brother Donald Birx is president, the renowned global public health official toured UNH’s lab with Sedam; Kelley Thomas, professor of molecular, cellular and biomedical sciences and scientific director of the lab; Marian McCord, senior vice provost for research, economic engagement and outreach; and NH Gov. Chris Sununu. Following the tour, Birx held two roundtable discussions, one with UNH leaders and a second with students and Durham town leadership.
Healthcare Highlight
Jeremy Gasowski
But what do you do with all of that data?

Automating as much of the process as possible was a goal from the very beginning. Computational scientist Anthony Westbrook created the software that scans each test’s barcode and tracks it all the way through. Even with thousands of samples being tested every day, the tracking system allows them to pinpoint a single positive sample.

“It takes the entire UNH ecosystem,” Cote says.

That includes having a world-class genomics research center right on campus. But it also comes down to the sheer ingenuity and resilience of the many individuals involved every step of the way — like the facilities staff who hoisted not one but two 1,500-pound biosafety cabinets through a window when they wouldn’t fit through the lab door.

Today, Cote says the lab is like a beehive. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, with shifts staffed by a number of recent life sciences alums, processing some 200,000 tests that had been conducted as of November 1.

Indeed, as Thanksgiving approaches and UNH remains open, Cote points to the lab’s role in the university’s success monitoring the health of the campus. “We’re proud that UNH has the scientific and technical resources, along with the backing of university and state leadership to implement large-scale testing this fall,” he says.

— Ali Goldstein