Arizona recognizes Biodesign Institute’s response to COVID-19 with Innovator of the Year award

LaBaer and researchers look at machine used in COVID-19 testing in his laboratory

Since the rise of COVID-19 in our state last spring, the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute has worked tirelessly to respond, in particular by providing rapid public testing for the virus and by developing a less invasive saliva-based test. As of mid-November, the ASU Biodesign Clinical Testing Laboratory has processed over 255,000 tests.

Last Wednesday, Arizona’s leaders recognized these efforts by awarding the Biodesign Institute with the Innovator of the Year award in the academia category. The recognition was part of the 17th annual — and first virtual — Governor’s Celebration of Innovation ceremony. Since the award’s inception, ASU faculty have been finalists 14 times and have won 10 times.

The Governor’s Celebration of Innovation is an awards gala presented by the Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority that honors technology leaders, innovators and academics from across the state.

The Innovator of the Year award in academia goes to a department or office within an accredited higher education institution that has achieved success through innovation in the past calendar year, said Jan Janick, chief technology officer of Benchmark Electronics, who presented the award.

“The world took a dramatic turn, and initially it seemed that all we could do was hang on,” said Steven Zylstra, the event’s host and the president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council. “Fortunately, we in Arizona pulled together, took on the new challenge and found new hope for our future. Enough hope that we truly can feel positive about the future of technology in Arizona, the theme for this year’s governor’s celebration.”

ASU President Michael Crow was the keynote speaker at last week’s celebration. He spoke about Arizona’s history of technological advancement, starting 100 years ago with our water infrastructure, which then led to advanced agriculture, energy and cities. He pointed to the even deeper history of Arizona’s Indigenous peoples, who practiced the idea of natural systems and the human-built environment working successfully together.

These histories create a foundation for Arizona to find sophisticated ways to manage the human-nature relationship through new technologies, which would in turn grow the state’s economy. The key to that success, proposed Crow, is in building a workforce that is trained for the future we want.

“I think we have every opportunity to be incredibly economically successful and technologically advanced, and all we have to do is decide we want to do it, prepare our human capital to move in that direction and take full advantage of … the foundation that we’re sitting on, which is tremendous,” Crow said in the address.

Read more: AZBio awards ASU researchers for exceptional work in biosciences

In both the spirit of the state and of the governor’s award, the Biodesign Institute paved the way for better COVID-19 testing in Arizona.

Testing is critical to help identify and isolate infected individuals, especially as Arizonans returned to the workplace, schools and other daily activities. But labs were unable to keep up with demand, plagued by shortages in the supply chain for testing kits and reagents. This meant limited availability of tests and long wait times for results. ASU researchers rose to the challenge.

With unprecedented speed, ASU’s Biodesign Institute shifted its capabilities to create a clinically approved and certified COVID-19 testing lab in a mere two weeks.

“We had a large project to identify and develop biomarkers that could detect if a person had been exposed to radiation,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute and laboratory director of the Clinical Testing Laboratory. “We had to be able to test 400,000 people in a single week and develop those markers under conditions that were compatible with getting FDA clearance. This allowed us to pivot over to SARS-CoV-2 testing and actually develop a platform here at ASU.”

Prior to the pandemic, the Biodesign Institute was purely a research facility that wasn’t designed to handle clinical work. The institute brought in a clinical pathologist to make sure the lab met strict regulatory standards, all while operating under extremely unusual conditions — like taking samples from people in cars at drive-thru sites.

A $2 million donation in emergency grants from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust vastly expanded ASU’s efforts to coordinate preparedness responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Making COVID-19 diagnostic testing easier and more readily available to Arizonans, researchers at the Biodesign Institute also developed the state’s first saliva-based test. The institute was the first in the U.S. to make these tests publicly available.

The new saliva-based test is a real game-changer for several reasons. It is less invasive and more comfortable for participants than nasopharyngeal (NP) swab tests. It’s safer for testing staff since NP swabs often cause participants to cough or sneeze. It also eliminates the need for scarce swab kits and requires less PPE for testing staff.

Initially, ASU partnered with local organizations to provide tests to essential workers and underserved populations. Over the summer, ASU forged a new partnership with the Arizona Department of Health Services to launch several testing sites providing free, public COVID-19 testing in high-need communities around the state. Through this partnership, ADHS has committed up to $12.7 million to fund the expansion of testing sites to serve up to 100,000 Arizonans.

In September, the Biodesign Institute along with the School of Molecular Sciences and the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering received a $6 million state contract to develop a new, portable saliva-based testing device that will deliver results in as little as 20 minutes. Also referred to as a point-of-need test, users will be able to easily provide a saliva sample on a computer chip that will quickly detect whether the virus is present.

Last month, the Biodesign Institute also hosted its fourth annual — and first virtual — Arizona Wellbeing Commons conference, which brought together approximately 300 health care professionals, researchers, policymakers and others to discuss what they’ve learned about COVID-19, what challenges are yet to come and how best to work together for greater success.

In all, Biodesign Institute’s speedy and innovative COVID-19 response has benefitted not just the ASU community, but the state as a whole. Its actions are in keeping with its ever-important, but especially timely, mission to “deliver the future of nature-inspired scientific innovation today for the betterment of human health, community safety and global sustainability.”

The institute’s work has allowed the university to safely continue its essential purposes, given underserved communities to access free testing, relieved some of the burden on Arizona’s health care workforce, helped businesses reopen prudently and assisted public health officials in tracking the virus’s spread.

“This is research and effort for the sake of saving people and helping them stay healthy,” LaBaer said.

“Congratulations to tonight’s award winners,” said Gov. Doug Ducey at the event. “You’ve helped Arizona build an ecosystem of innovation that is second to none, and this recognition is well deserved.”

“I am so gratified that our team has won this award. We began back in the early spring with a group of individuals who had just the right sets of expertise. That team blossomed into about 70 individuals who meet on a daily basis to help drive this whole process,” LaBaer said. “We are grateful to the Virginia G. Piper Foundation for providing the funding that helped us get the instruments we needed to get this going, and thankful to the Arizona Department of Health Services for helping us build the first public testing of saliva in the state of Arizona and in the country, and of course thankful to President Crow for investing in us, believing in us and helping our team get moving.”

The Biodesign Institute is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 950 patents, 328 new startup companies and hands-on training for nearly 39,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Top photo: Joshua LaBaer and researchers stand in front of a high-throughput automated liquid handler currently used for the COVID-19 testing at the ASU Biodesign Clinical Testing Laboratory. Photo by Jarod Opperman.

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