Stuck in Boston unable to reach my family, I returned to the lab to help end the pandemic
A story by Pawan Jolly, a Senior Research Scientist using electrochemical sensing techniques to develop diagnostics.
I never thought that I would move to the United States. Born and raised in India, I moved to Europe for university and ended up staying for nearly a decade working in the field of biosensors. Being an eight-hour flight away from home felt too far at times, and I couldn’t even fathom living further than that. But then, in 2017, I learned about an opportunity at the Wyss Institute to develop a sensing device to diagnose and treat severe allergic reactions. My mother suffers from allergies and asthma, and the chance to apply my skills to something that could help her breathe more easily was so compelling that I moved to Boston that July, and I’ve been here ever since.
It’s been a very rewarding experience, but living so far from home has meant that I see my family and friends back home even less often than I did when I lived in Europe. At the beginning of this year, I submitted a petition to renew my U.S. work visa, expecting that it would be approved by March so that I could travel to India for three weeks in April. I booked my flights, eagerly anticipating seeing my parents for the first time in nearly two years.
On February 1, 2020, Massachusetts became the fifth state in the U.S. to report a case of COVID-19. The patient was a graduate student who had just come back from visiting family in Wuhan, and he was quickly quarantined at home. After it was confirmed that he hadn’t passed it to any others, the whole city seemed to hold its breath, wondering if we were safe as long as we hadn’t been in contact with anyone who had been to China recently. In early March, we learned that people who had traveled from Europe to Boston had tested positive, and that some other infections could not be traced to any specific source. The façade of security fell away – we were all susceptible, and no one was safe.
I anxiously checked the news every day as travel bans started to be put in place – first on travelers from China, then from Iran, then all of Europe. On March 18, the U.S. State Department suspended all visa appointments, but I still hoped that my application would make it through the processing procedure so I could go home. That hope was short-lived, however; on March 22, India suspended all international flights until further notice, preventing me from getting there even if I had a valid visa. My parents are at an age that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, and I could do nothing while stuck in Boston except urge them not to travel due to the risk of contracting the disease.
Meeting an unmet need
As a research scientist, not being able to go into the lab and perform experiments was incredibly frustrating. I felt like I was just sitting back and watching as the pandemic got worse and worse, worrying about my family’s health and safety but unable to help them. But I started to notice a common refrain in the news coverage about COVID-19: there weren’t enough reliable diagnostic tests from any one supplier to test the number of people needed to establish the virus’ infectivity. Not only were existing tests in short supply due to materials shortages, most of them also produced a high number of false positives and false negatives that gave patients the wrong information about their health. Blood tests for the antibodies that indicate a previous infection were also not adequate or widely available. I realized that the eRapid platform I’ve been working on for the last two years could provide a solution to both of those problems at the same time.
I reached out to Helena de Puig Guixe, a postdoctoral fellow in Jim Collins’ lab with whom I have worked on multiple projects over the last few years, and we decided to use our combined expertise in electrochemical sensors, lateral flow assays, and CRISPR to repurpose eRapid for the development of a multiplexed, highly selective assay that can diagnose COVID-19. Our idea generated excitement within the rest of the eRapid team, and when we realized we had enough momentum to turn our idea into reality, Adama Sesay and I applied for an exemption overnight for the group to work on it in the lab.
Since then, it’s been inspiring to see how quickly so many people have pitched in to help. Sanjay Sharma, who has been working in the lab with Girija Goyal on a COVID-19 lymph node vaccination project, has donated his limited extra time to this effort. João Paulo Costa is working from home to develop instrumentation. Adama, Mohamed Yafia, and Joshua Rainbow are in the lab developing and testing cartridges and instrumentation. Sanjay and Nooralhuda Arkan are contributing to assay development. Hani Sallum and Geoff Lansberry are also supporting the project from their home offices. And I get to do what I love best: bring people together to solve problems through hands-on experimentation and optimization.
So far, our team has developed a chip that contains multiple antigenic proteins specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and antibodies that can detect whether a patient has previously been infected, effectively combining the two existing types of COVID-19 diagnostics into one highly selective and specific test. As far as we know, this is the first multiplexed, electrochemical platform that exists to detect the novel coronavirus. Our next step is to test it on as many patient samples as possible in order to determine and tune the test’s performance, and then to incorporate CRISPR technology into the chip to enable viral RNA detection.
Our group comes from a wide diversity of backgrounds and cultures: Brazilian, African, British, Indian, Spanish, Egyptian, Nepalese, and American. But one thing we all share is that we are far away from our families, working late nights to try to ensure that they are safe. It’s not a very satisfying proxy for actually being with our loved ones, but we are grateful that we have the opportunity to make something that can help directly save lives during this pandemic, when so many people cannot.
Years of experience, immediate impact
I have also been lucky enough to help contribute to ending the pandemic beyond the lab, as the leader of the Point-of-Service/Urgent Care working group within the MGB Center for COVID Innovation. This working group’s task was to quickly identify existing technologies that could be used to meet COVID-19 testing needs at locations like urgent care clinics, emergency rooms, and pop-up testing sites. Within two weeks, we did a deep-horizon scan of more than 400 technologies and selected the best based on their specifications, the quality of their systems, and their supply chain situation. It was a very intense effort that felt a bit like a long hackathon, because our group included all sorts of people working toward a common goal: consultants, researchers, doctors, nurses, and employees of private companies. At the end of the two weeks, we were able to provide a shortlist of technologies that are now being further evaluated by the Center, and we are looking ahead to how they might be used in the anticipated “second wave” of COVID-19 this fall.
Scientists often don’t get to see the impact of their work in the real world until years after it has been done. This global pandemic has greatly accelerated the pace of innovation and evaluation, and while the teams I’ve been leading have certainly met milestones that I’m proud of, sometimes when experiments don’t work or I’m in the lab by myself for hours on end, it can feel like my efforts are just a drop in the bucket of trying to improve health on a global scale.
Two weeks ago, I received an email out of the blue from a high school student in Michigan, thanking me for my work. I was confused at first, because I didn’t know who this person was, but he explained that he had recently seen the Wyss Institute’s video about eRapid, and that it had provided him a great deal of hope and inspiration for his own goals of pursuing a career in molecular bioengineering. Moments like that make all the difficult times worth it: knowing that I have helped a young person believe in the power of science and in their own capabilities is extremely humbling. And, if my efforts can also help end a global pandemic and keep my friends and family in India safe and healthy until I can see them again, whenever that is – that will be even better.