VCU thinks small for COVID-19 innovations
The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has upended life across the globe, but it also has spurred innovation and invention.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, two researchers have been working on projects that, if successful, might have far-reaching applications for preventing and detecting COVID-19.
A vaccine patch the size of a fingernail has the attention of Guizhi “Julian” Zhu, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics at the VCU School of Pharmacy.
His research is focused on finding a way to embed tiny needles in a patch that could be self-applied to deliver a successful COVID-19 vaccine, once it has been developed and approved.
As of mid-December, Virginia was beginning to dole out the initial tens of thousands of doses of Pfizer Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers.
“Our effort,” Zhu says, “is to make [COVID-19 vaccines] more accessible for the general public for mass vaccination” via a patch that can be mailed in an envelope. “Instead of injecting this vaccine with needles in the hospital or clinic or a physician’s office, we can inject ourselves at home.”
Zhu says more than 100 polymer needles, each thinner than a human hair and virtually painless, would deliver the vaccine through the skin. Tests of the patch on animals are currently underway, and human tests await if sufficient funding is available.
VCU provides some funding, but Zhu says grants are needed to advance the project to human studies. In November 2020, Zhu filmed a TED Talk about the vaccine patch, which likely will raise the profile of the project.
Over at the VCU College of Engineering, another researcher, assistant professor Christina Tang, is working with the U.S. Army on another coronavirus-focused project to spin liquid crystals into nanofibers — each 1/1,000 the width of a human hair — that change colors at different temperatures.
Applications might range from being used in camouflage clothing or adapted to detect viruses such as the coronavirus.
“The liquid crystals act like special mirrors that can reflect one color at a time. The color that the fabric appears to be depends on the size of the liquid crystal, which changes with temperature,” Tang says.
For example, if a face mask contained nanofibers that could detect COVID-19 and changed colors, Tang says, you would immediately know that you needed to change your mask.