Science

Editor’s note: The is the second installment updating SLAC’s research related to COVID-19.

As part of the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park has re-opened some of its facilities for essential research on the atomic structure of the virus and how it interacts with potential treatments and vaccines.

SLAC scientists are also leading the development of global standards to ensure reliable testing for the coronavirus, and they are participating in DOE working groups that are considering a wide range of proposals for coronavirus research, including high-throughput drug screening and novel approaches for building ventilators.

“Working with our fellow national labs, Stanford University and other partners, we’re applying our unique expertise and facilities to make a difference in the global fight against this disease,” said SLAC Director Chi-Chang Kao.

Toward reliable coronavirus testing

One important area is making sure that tests for coronavirus are reliable, no matter when or where they take place. Defining standards that guarantee just that is the focus of an initiative launched by SLAC’s Marc Salit, director of the Joint Initiative for Metrology in Biology (JIMB).

“My team has been developing a Coronavirus Standards Working Group as the authoritative body to catalog existing standards and studies that will give us a global COVID-19 testing enterprise we can trust, and also fill in any gaps we find,” Salit said. “The idea is to create something enduring, institutionalized and poised for the next time so we can ensure we have the tools available to underpin the development of reliable testing.”

Although the working group is only a few weeks old, it has already become an active research community, bringing together leaders from government, academia, professional societies, international standards bodies, technology developers and the makers of standards and controls. The group is scoping standards for virus and antibody testing and exploring the creation of an open repository of clinical samples to support more test development and research.

A community-wide response

SLAC is also part of DOE’s COVID-19 working group, which brings together all 17 national labs in a coordinated response to explore the broad range of advanced scientific tools, deep technological knowledge and unique expertise the labs can bring to the table. This system-wide effort is developing ideas and approaches in a number of areas, including bioimaging, therapeutics, computing, materials and supply chains.

“SLAC is participating vigorously in all of these areas, leveraging our expertise in fabrication, electronics, prototyping, metrology and more,” said Steve Eglash, director of SLAC’s Applied Energy Division.

SLAC and Stanford faculty member Yi Cui, for example, has teamed up with Stanford colleague Steven Chu and Silicon Valley start-up 4C Air for a study that uses heat to sterilize N95 face masks that protect health care workers from COVID-19. The masks are in short supply, and disinfection could allow front-line medical workers to safely reuse them.

Other areas where SLAC’s expertise and tools could be used are the 3D printing of masks, the design of new, simplified types of ventilators, and the long-distance control of these devices, which would allow adjusting them without coming close to infectious patients. Members of SLAC’s machine learning initiative are also looking into how their computational methods can help with the analysis of complex cryo-EM and tomographic data.

“We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm from many people all around the lab,” Eglash said. “Our community is really coming together and has already produced a long list of promising ideas to explore. The weeks and months ahead will tell us which of these projects will move ahead.”

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