Mumbai: IIT-ians train sights on Sars-CoV-2
As Covid-19 shut down campuses and put the brakes on academic schedules the world over, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) turned their attention to solutions for the pandemic
As Covid-19 shut down campuses and put the brakes on academic schedules the world over, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) turned their attention to solutions for the pandemic.
“We worked on three specific verticals during the pandemic: helping society fight Covid-19 through research; keeping all academic activities alive; and demonstrating that the tough time could also be a good time for innovation and an opportunity,” said IIT-B director Subhasis Chaudhuri.
Within days, the institute set up a five-member committee comprising senior faculty members, and convened by Milind Atrey, dean, research and development, to seek proposals from researchers across various academic levels, on solutions directed towards fighting Covid-19.
The committee sifted through short-term and long-term proposals from various professor-led research groups and collated a list of expertise available for government and industry partnership for technology transfer, licensing and commercialization of technologies and products.
A year on, we take a look at three innovations that emerged from the institute:
A mask that fights viruses
Researchers from biosciences and bioengineering (BSBE), who had been working on technologies for the prevention of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), were quick to extend their research to the coronavirus-induced disease, which also exhibited often as ARDS in acute cases. “As soon as the pandemic broke out, we started exploring ways of extending some of the technologies we were working on to this new virus,” Rinti Banerjee, professor, BSBE, said.
Her team, comprising a PhD and three post-doctoral research fellows first developed a wash-resistant biodegradable coating for textiles for environment-friendly masks and PPEs. They called it Duraprot (a combination of two words: durable, protection) technology.
The team developed natural biodegradable material (bio-nano polymers), which acts directly on the covering of the Covid-19 virus – or any bacteria – by breaking it down and thus making it inactive. It developed an emulsion into which cloth could be dipped to coat it. The coating would not come off even after 20 wash cycles. “It’s almost as easy as cooking dal at home,” said team member Kapil Punjabi, a post-doctoral research scientist. This technology is awaiting two patents.
The only person in team with access to the lab was Roshan Keshari, 23, a student from Nepal. The PhD student was unable to return home when the campus shut down in March as all international borders were sealed. The rest worked from home, reformulating and designing experiments on the coating. They relayed detailed instructions to Keshari, who would then perform the experiments in the lab on campus. He would then send his observations to the team who would analyse the observations and tweak the experiments accordingly.
“There was a lot of back and forth. Our goal was to build solutions quickly and get them tested and ready for industry integration. So, it was a stressful time as we had to design experiments, look for standards, test out products, send samples for those tests, get validation,” said Punjabi.
“We then decided to apply this technology to develop masks and personal protective equipment for clinical personnel and those exposed to harmful effects of air pollution. We wanted to have an environment-friendly version of N95 masks, which are made of nondegradable polymer/ plastic components,” said Banerjee.
Around three months after the lockdown was announced, the Duraprot technology was ready and was licensed to manufacturers such as Ants Innovations, Meemansa and EcoStyleCrafts who launched a range of products such as masks and sanitisers.
The key highlight for the team is a social initiative that was launched soon after.
The processes associated with the technology of producing these masks were simplified so that around the country could safely and repeatedly make the coating material and the coated masks in low resource settings.
The team conducted training sessions with women self-help groups around the country, in states like Kerala and Bihar. Both, the coating material, and coated masks could be made in low-resource settings, which allowed the team to conduct the trainings virtually.
“We would let the women know about the materials and chemicals they would need. They would keep these ready for the training sessions, which were held completely online,” said Punjabi.
“While the research part was stressful, what we found most fulfilling was training the women virtually. We trained women from Kerala, Bihar and many other states. Training material was developed in vernacular languages and we used a lot of pictures,” said Banerjee.
A helmet to breathe easy
The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the country’s poor inventory of respiratory support. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure or CPAP machines, which increase air pressure in the throat -- so airways do not collapse while breathing in -- were in short supply. For patients with breathing trouble, respiratory support is essential to ensure the pressure in the lungs doesn’t fall below the prescribed limit.
Three professors from the department of Mechanical Engineering designed a low-cost helmet interface that would help.
This helmet, when connected to a CPAP supply, enables enhanced oxygenation for the patients. One of the biggest advantages of this helmet is that it minimised re-breathing of carbon dioxide.
“One of the disadvantages of mask-based CPAP devices is that the carbon dioxide breathed out goes back in through the nose. The helmet, however, minimises this rebreathing as the carbon dioxide, a heavy element, settles at the bottom of the helmet,” said Ramesh Singh, project lead.
The helmet is designed ergonomically to avoid irritation to patients while allowing them to speak, listen, drink, and wear glasses while being treated. “The device is also embedded with many safety features such as high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter for inhaling pathogen-free air, as well as audio-visual alarms for low/high pressure, battery fault or low battery. Separate flowmeters were installed for measuring oxygen and total air flow,” said Soham Mujumdar, an assistant professor was also part of the team.
“Studies show that around 5% of the Covid-19-infected patients needed effective oxygenation with approximately 2% needing ventilator support. Therefore, the idea was to develop a non-invasive ventilation device for Covid-19 patients in mild to medium distress,” Mujumdar added.
The project was done in collaboration with Thermax, a Pune-based energy and environment engineering company, and modeled itself on clinical studies done in Europe last year.
With the lockdown in place, it was extremely difficult to procure the raw material, sensors, and other testing equipment for the project.
“The design and manufacturing of the final prototype of HPI is complete. The device has been tested comprehensively for mechanical integrity and flow performance at IIT Bombay. Stage I clinical studies have been successfully conducted with the help of the IIT Bombay ethics committee and IIT Bombay hospital,” Mujumdar said.
The design of the CPAP helmet has been optimised and prototype tested. “We are looking for potential industry partners for manufacturing and scaling-up,” said Singh.
The helmet was developed at a cost of ₹8,000 a unit, and it can be re-used after properly sanitising the unit, Singh said.
Sanjeeva Srivastava, a professor of proteomics in BSBE, was travelling from Delhi to Mumbai by air on March 17, 2020, just ahead of the lockdown. Seeing how the number of travellers outnumbered the security personnel, he realized that screening was absolutely essential.
“All I could think of was we have a mass spectrometry facility in the proteomics lab on campus and how we can put it to use in diagnostics,” said Srivastava.
Simply put, proteomics is a technology to study proteins. Srivastava’s Proteomics Lab at IIT-B uses a mass spectrometer device to expose proteins in biological samples like blood, tissue and urine, using an analytical technique to calculate the molecular weight of the components in the sample. This technology was already being used by Srivastava and his team for cancer and malaria research. He decided to extend this technology to determine protein variants in swab samples for early detection of the coronavirus.
A team of 35-40 researchers including clinicians from Kasturba Hospital, the city’s infectious diseases hospital and one of the first Covid-designated centres, precipitated protein from swabs of infected persons. Unique peptides (amino acids) from the swabs were detected rapidly using mass spectrometry-based proteomics approach.
Proteomics also helped identify the potential panel of marker proteins which could distinguish the severe from the non-severe cases. The team received clinical samples of Covid-19 from government hospitals like Kasturba, Nair and Jaslok, on which it performed a comprehensive proteomics-based investigation.
“The study established a panel of host proteins using high-resolution mass spectrometry—a technique to measure mass to charge ratio of ions. There was a spike in the presence of host proteins such as Interleukin-6, L-lactate dehydrogenase, C-reactive protein, Ferritin, and Aspartate aminotransferase in Covid-19 infected swabs. The proteins identified in the study can be potential targets for the Covid-19 therapeutics,” said Srivastava.
Their study, which was published in the international peer-reviewed Cell Press journal on February 3, also revealed a set of potential prognosis markers and drug candidates for circumventing the Covid-19 infection. The team has filed for two patents for potential biomarkers it identified for detection and prognosis of Covid-19 using the mass-spectrometry approach.
“The mass-spectrometry-based identification of altered host proteins can reveal key information on why a group of population remains asymptomatic whereas few succumb to the infection. It would be interesting to consider the asymptomatic group along with the severe and non-severe groups for the study. Along with this, we also plan to conduct a longitudinal proteomic analysis of patient plasma samples at different time points leading to severity to study the disease progression at the individual level,” said Srivastava.
“Even though the samples brought to campus were deactivated, it was still risky. The institute’s Ethics Committee was very strict with guidelines,” said Kruthi Suvarna, an institute post-doctoral fellow from BSBE, who worked on the project.
Three PhD scholars were assigned the duty of collecting samples and deactivating them at Kasturba Hospital. “There were travel restrictions so the scholars were put up in a hotel near the hospital. The institute provided for the PPE kits while we handled the logistics of purchasing the reactive agents that would help the scholars deactivate the virus,” said Suvarna.
WHERE THE MONEY CAME FROM
The institute’s research and development (R&D) department released seed fund – between Rs2 to 10 lakh -- depending on the project. Agencies under the Union ministry of science and technology also released funds for Covid-19 related projects.
By December 2020, the institute had received over ₹150crore for all research projects, majority of which were related to Covid-19.
With the lockdown in place and limited access to resources, industry collaboration helped set things in motion for researchers.
Organisations provided access to laboratories, machines, chemicals and fabrication units. Thermo Fisher Scientific, a global company that supplies scientific equipment helped Sanjeeva Srivastava, a professor of proteomics in BSBE, with engineers and application scientists; Thermax not only funded the prototype of the CPAP helmet but also shared expertise of its scientists to IIT-Bombay in the project.
According to annual reports, the institute received ₹395 crore in 2016-17; ₹312 crore in 2017-18; ₹362.08 crore in 2018-19; and ₹331.24 crore in 2019-20.