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A lab takes a frugal-science approach to COVID-19

Working on several possible COVID-19 solutions, bioengineer Manu Prakash and his lab stress their obligation to produce careful and meticulous work.

Manu Prakash

A portrait, taken over Zoom, of bioengineer Manu Prakash while he was sheltering-in-place at home | Photo by Andrew Brodhead

An origami microscope, a 20-cent centrifuge, and an app for tracking and identifying mosquitoes.

These are just a few of the many imaginative inventions that have resulted from the curiosity-driven — and often frugal — work of Manu Prakash, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and his lab. With their penchant for turning whimsical ideas into scientific realities, it’s perhaps unsurprising that these researchers are leading several COVID-19 projects.

But this time, the work is far from business-as-usual.

“The process right now is very strange. The lab was shut down,” said Prakash, referring to Stanford’s restrictions against all but the most essential lab operations during the pandemic. “We got approvals to do some essential work but there are still very stringent rules.”

Prakash and his team have evolved to become an all-hours virtual hive of activity, teleconferencing and sharing documents with collaborators around the world.

“It has been an interesting time,” said Prakash during a Zoom interview sandwiched between two others that would take him to 11 p.m. “But I’m focused.”

The team is developing six COVID-19 projects so far — a number that will likely continue to grow. In brief, they are: a converter that makes full-face snorkel masks into reusable personal protective equipment, or PPE; guidelines for decontaminating N95 masks; a universal remote for controlling ventilators from outside a patient’s room; a ventilator built with abundantly available parts; a simple filtration test setup for face masks; and a technique, inspired by cotton candy machines, for spinning filter fibers from Styrofoam.

That trademark splash of Prakash lab quirkiness remains, but every creative solution conceived amidst this pandemic is built on deadly serious intentions and painstaking analysis. The group continues to follow their frugal science approach but with an increased emphasis on being able to scale up their innovations quickly and responsibly.

A scientific checkpoint

In the very early stages of each project, the lab is sharing their ideas and aims publicly on their website and Twitter.

“If any of our work inspires and energizes others, it already moves the needle in the right direction,” said Prakash. “This crisis is not just in our own backyard but is global, and making all the information — our current experiments, data, thoughts and ideas — accessible and live to everyone is the only way I could think of working in this time of crisis.”

Once the team feels their work has reached a stage where it could be a feasible solution in the clinical world, they move onto some formal work behind the scenes, such as final data analysis and, in at least one case so far, application for FDA approval. The last step, for now, is publishing a preprint and creating a formal website for each final product.

Of course, “finality” is a shifting concept in the fast-paced world of the novel coronavirus. Before this pandemic, health projects like these would have required months, maybe years of testing, fundraising and approvals. Now, with so many people looking to apply whatever skills or resources they have to the quick creation of vital solutions, barriers have been lowered and actions are swift, but this also raises the likelihood of overpromising and under-delivering.

“What started bothering me early on was that everybody was waking up to the crisis but not appreciating that these are clinical problems that require a really rigorous mindset,” said Prakash. “For these solutions, there are strict expectations and you have to follow those no matter how much you love an idea.”

More so than ever before, the Prakash lab understands that the greatest value they can offer in the current situation is taking responsibility for the most scientifically-demanding portions of their projects in a process that unites expert and non-expert contributors.

“There are lots of DIY [do-it-yourself] solutions out there, but the DIY community is not used to clinical validation. Many people are working on the first 90 percent of every problem,” said Prakash.

“If people want to help, they can replicate our efforts and they can share their replicated data. Then we can cover that last 10 percent. The role we are really playing is being a scientific checkpoint. People’s lives are on the line.”

A new way

Like many of us, Prakash and his team are exhausted. They’re encouraged by their achievements so far — including going from idea generation to FDA submission in seven days for their snorkel-based “Pneumask” — and the need for creative solutions keeps them determined. Thinking beyond COVID-19 can feel like a luxury, but Prakash wonders, in the brief snatches of free time available to him, what he and others will do with the hard-won lessons of this pandemic once it’s over.

“It’s almost teaching us a new way of doing science,” said Prakash. “It’s something I’ll reflect more on later, when I can. But what if we did something like this for malaria? What if we did this for climate change? Could we finally crack those problems?”