IUP, IRMC Collaborate to Provide COVID-19 Testing

Posted on 4/17/2020 3:20:02 PM
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On April 17, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Indiana Regional Medical Center announced a collaboration that will result in same-day, local COVID-19 testing at IRMC.

Dr. Narayanaswamy Bharathan

Starting April 20, Narayanaswamy Bharathan, chair of the IUP Department of Biology in the John J. and Char Kopchick College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, will be working at IRMC to conduct testing to identify the presence of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Bharathan is using equipment from his IUP laboratory for the testing, which will allow same-day results.

“IUP and IRMC share a commitment to contributing to the health and safety of our community,” IUP President Michael Driscoll said. “This is an excellent opportunity for collaboration on a project that has the potential to literally save lives, now and in the future.

“IUP is very proud of Dr. Bharathan and his willingness to offer his expertise to this project; he is truly an exceptional scientist, scholar, and teacher. There has been a great deal of work required to ensure that all required legalities have been met, and I want to thank everyone who has been involved in this project.”

During a nine-hour day, if need be, Bharathan estimates that he can process up to 200 tests.

“One thing this crisis has shown us is that we have incredible resources right here at home,” said Stephen Wolfe, president and CEO of IRMC. “The ability to work with IUP to combine our amazing people has never been more evident. Bringing testing in-house will be a game-changer for people we serve.”

Bharathan will be working in a laboratory at IRMC certified by CUA under the Pennsylvania Department of Health; the IUP equipment can do specialized COVID-19 RT-PCR clinical diagnostic testing. The equipment, which includes a microfuge 22R Beckman Coulter Table-top refrigerated centrifuge and Eppendorf AG DNA thermal cycler, is used by Bharathan in his classes and for his own research work. 

The equipment from the IUP lab moved to IRMC on April 13; this week, Bharathan did some trial runs to prepare to begin testing on April 20.

“We all understand that during this current crisis, testing is key,” Bharathan said. “The more individuals we test, the greater the observations and conclusions we can make about how they were exposed. This is significant because as we go forward, there are individuals who have been exposed who do not have any symptoms. Health information about them may be very useful in the development of treatments for those with symptoms of the virus and improve protocols for resisting the infection.”

Bharathan will be working closely with the physicians at IRMC to determine the presumptive positive cases and negative tests that need to be reported to state agencies. He also will train IRMC personnel to maintain the RNase-free environment in the laboratory, to do RNA purification, and how to use the Eppendorf Thermal Cycler, and he will work with these staff members to efficiently process patient sample following protocols approved by the Centers for Disease Control and other public health agencies.

Dr. N. Bharathan working with the Eppendorf AG DNA thermal cycler.
Dr. N. Bharathan working with the Eppendorf AG DNA thermal cycler.

IRMC will provide personal protective equipment for his work and will purchase supplies needed for the ongoing testing. 

Bharathan’s expertise includes work with RNA viruses and protocols for testing and identifying these viruses, which includes COVID-19. 

“I just felt that it was imperative that I jump into this work; it’s the best way that I can help during this crisis,” he said.

“COVID-19 is an invisible enemy, and humans are vectors, not responsible for causing the disease, but for spreading the infection from one person (host) to another. We don’t really know or fully understand this enemy. There are a lot of viruses in nature, and we just don’t know how they can effect humans.”

IUP Emergency Response Fund

IUP’s School of Graduate Studies and Research facilitated the collaboration, which was initiated by President Driscoll. Hilliary Creely, associate dean for research in the IUP School of Graduate Studies and Research, was the lead on developing the logistics and legalities of the agreement.

“We are very enthusiastic and excited to be collaborating with Indiana Regional Medical Center in this way,” Creely said. “Not only is this work critical to the health and safety of our community, it opens the door for future research collaborations. IUP is very fortunate to have a researcher like Dr. Bharathan, who maintains a very robust research agenda while being a great educator. His work as a professor is an important part of this project, as he will be training professionals at IRMC on the testing processes.”

Randy Martin, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research, noted that the collaboration is a perfect fit for the School of Graduate Studies and Research.

“Our mission is twofold: service and support to our community, and to further our research and knowledge base,” Martin said. “Providing local COVID-19 testing to our community through the expertise of our faculty certainly meets these goals.” 

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