Tackling COVID-19

Collaboration and expertise at the Case School of Engineering help researchers join the quest for solutions.

About the same time that Cleveland Clinic placed an order for 100,000 face shields designed and prototyped at Sears think[box], the National Science Foundation approved a rapid research grant for Jing Li, PhD, a professor applying data science to decoding the coronavirus genome.
 
The two dissimilar projects on the same quad illustrate the breadth and depth of expertise at the Case School of Engineering. Faculty, staff and students are addressing the health crisis with both fundamental engineering and scientific discovery.
 
In some ways, it's a moment made for Case.
 
“Case is as good as any place, and better than most, at working across disciplines,” said Jim McGuffin-Cawley, PhD '84, the Senior Associate Dean of the Case School of Engineering and a professor of materials science and engineering. “We have great collaboration across departments and between schools. That’s one of the great virtues of Case.”

That capability is proving to be an asset in the search for solutions to the pandemic.

An example of Case-style collaboration is the nationally-acclaimed Department of Biomedical Engineering, a partnership between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. One of its researchers, Anant Madabhushi, PhD, has trained his deep-learning computers on the coronavirus. He’s found he can predict the likely severity of a case with increasing precision, which could help doctors better triage a fall outbreak.
 
More recently, data science has emerged as a valuable expertise spanning disciplines. Yanfang "Fanny" Ye, PhD, a computer scientist, teamed up with Ken Loparo, PhD ’77, a systems engineer, to design an online tool that helps people gauge the coronavirus risk in specific locations. People are punching addresses into their Alpha-Satellite before choosing a grocery store.
 
Working from home, slipping into the lab, and meeting online, Case researchers are pouring their skill and passion into tackling Covid-19.
 
“This is really nights and weekend work now,” said Madabhushi, who is seeking research funding while instructing his researchers to plow ahead. “I think about people on the front line and the sacrifices they’re making. It’s exciting to feel like we can make a difference.”
 
Here is a look at some of the promising work being done by faculty and researchers at the Case School of Engineering:

Fast-tracked research

Healthcare workers account for a large minority of COVID-19 patients, as much as 30 percent in some regions. Jing Li, PhD, interim chair of the Department of Computer and Data Sciences, is hoping to better protect them.  Working with infectious disease experts at Cleveland Clinic, he plans to use data science to decode the virus and trace its transmission.
 
In mid-April, the National Science Foundation approved his rapid-funding request, awarding him $124,000 to sequence the virus genome and trace how it spreads in hospitals. The transmission pattern, coupled with epidemiologic data, should reveal how the healthcare workers become infected, Li said, and help hospitals better protect their staffs. 
 
“There are many important questions we can help to answer,” Li said. “Where does the virus come from? What are the mutation patterns? Understanding them are critical in the development of an effective vaccine.”
 
Through the collaboration with Cleveland Clinic, Li’s team has access to more than 2,000 samples of the virus from patients and healthcare workers throughout Ohio.

“Data science has a role to play, especially in the domain of genomics,” he said. “We bring computation, data analytics.” And soon, he hopes, answers.


Diagnosing a phantom disease

The frightening unpredictability of COVID-19 has baffled doctors and made it difficult for hospitals to allot critical equipment, like ventilators. Anant Madabhushi, PhD, the F. Alex Nason Professor of Biomedical Engineering, thinks advanced medical imaging and artificial intelligence can help.
 
Borrowing from his work with cancers, he’s training fast-learning computers to read medical images of COVID chest scans, many of them from patients in Wuhan, China. By analyzing the virus at the molecular level, he’s found, the computers are able spy tell-tale patterns that forecast the severity of a case.
 
“The CT scans of patients who need ventilators are different from the CT scans of patients who did not,” Madabhushi said. Combined with clinical information, his model has achieved an accuracy rate of 68-75 percent, he said. He hopes to boost that number with further research on larger datasets.
 
Soon, he fears, such information will be critical.
 

“If the prophecies are correct about the second phase in the fall, it’s going to be a major challenge” exacerbated by the seasonal flu, he said. His technology could make it easier to triage Covid-19 patients and deploy scarce resources during an outbreak.


Madabhushi, head of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics at the Case School of Engineering, has long been at the cutting edge of medical imaging. He and his research team achieved success using fast-learning computers to analyze cancers and predict which cases would respond to chemotherapy.
 
Now focused on the pandemic, his lab has applied for funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, from Amazon and from others, but he’s not waiting for the money.
 
“We’re hoping to get this deployed in hospitals this summer,” Madabhushi said. “We’re burning the candle at both ends here.”

Campus innovation center makes an impact

As the coronavirus spread into a pandemic, Ian Charnas ’05, the innovation lead at Sears think[box], knew that hospitals were desperate for personal protection equipment (PPE). He also thought that Sears think[box], with its rapid prototyping capabilities, could help.

Working with partners like Nottingham Spirk and Penn State Behrend, Charnas and his team helped design a quicker way to make a face shield that protects caregivers from spreading or contracting germs. They built a prototype and a supply chain made up of area manufacturers. Recently, Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals placed orders for about 125,000 of the new face shields, even as the think[box] team moved on to other projects.

The seven-story innovation icon at the edge of campus has been closed for regular business since mid-March. But staffers are working remotely and imaginatively. From morning COVID task force meetings come ideas and project updates, often after consultation with doctors and clinical engineers at area hospitals.

That’s how the so-called "intubation box" came to be. The box protects a healthcare worker who is intubating a patient—placing a breathing tube through their mouth and airway. About the size of a laundry basket, the clear plastic box with armholes shields caregivers from infected patients. 

Think[box] staffers worked with clinical engineers at University Hospitals to design and prototype what Charnas calls a “vastly improved version” of the traditional intubation box.

“The whole think[box] team knew this was our opportunity to help people on the front lines,” saud Manny Bansal, a design and manufacturing engineer at think[box]. “Our main goal was to get these projects done quickly and in the hands of the doctors and nurses and others who need them.”

A manufacturer just shipped 50 of the new devices to UH, Charnas said, and he expects other hospitals to soon be using the think[box] version.

As with the face shields, “We put our design in the public domain to try to help,” Charnas said.

“It’s actually a very exciting time to be in innovation,” he said. “You can help more people, and more quickly, than we’ll see again in our lives, hopefully."


The Case School of Engineering is providing financial support for COVID-19 projects through the Dean’s Discretionary Fund. Donations specifically for pandemic research can be made online HERE