Better nasal swab for testing on COVID-19

Startup company OPT Industries began production of nose pads to address shortages as hospitals tried to increase Covid-19 tests. Credit: OPT Industries

During almost seven years researching 3D printing systems at MIT’s Media Lab, Jifei Ou began to doubt that the work could lead to better products. He could never have imagined that this would help address the supply shortage caused by the global pandemic.

Since March last year, OU’s company, OPT Industries, has been working with hospitals to deliver a new type of nasal swab for testing on COVID-19. The swabs use thin, hairy structures that Ou developed while he was at MIT. The fine woven grids inside the OPT swabs allow them to absorb and release more fluid than conventional swabs.

MIT spinout uses a continuous manufacturing approach that allows it to increase printer production on demand. To date, it has delivered over 800,000 swabs to a number of healthcare and home testing organizations, helping to combat the shortage that has jeopardized hospitals ’testing capacity.

In the 12 months since Ou realized that OPT could play a role in responding to the pandemic, the company’s small team multiplied its production and distribution capabilities, teamed up with major healthcare organizations like Kaiser Permanente and began developing other products that could benefit from the company process. designing.

“It makes a lot of sense to be a part of this effort,” Ou says. “The feel is also particularly good because we’ve been developing materials with hairy structures for a long time, so it’s like,“ Yeah, our expertise has finally been used! ‘

Innovation leaves the lab

This time as a research assistant in the Tangible Media Group Media Lab culminated in a doctorate. for which he created new ways to design and 3D print intricate microstructures. The job required his team to make their own 3D printer, design software and develop special polymers that would meet the high demands of durability and resolution.

Ou received support from MIT Sandbox and the E14 fund, an investment company focused on the Media Lab. Ou also attributes recognition to MIT’s industrial communications program for helping it secure industrial communications. Since leaving MIT, Ou’s team has improved machine throughput by enabling continuous printing that has focused the company on creating flexible textile-like materials.

In March last year, as nasal patches needed for testing for COVID-19 began to disappear in hospitals across the country, Ramy Arnaout, director of clinical laboratories for microbiology Beth Israel and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, sent an email to his network at MIT – and beyond seeking help.

Better nasal swab for testing on COVID-19

The OPT Industries (INSTASWAB) swab uses micron scale fibers to absorb and discharge more fluid than conventional swabs. Credit: OPT Industries

The next day, Ou entered Arnaout’s office in Beth Israel with a prototype nasal swab prepared by his team overnight. The visit was noted not only for the rapid turnaround, but also for the precision with which the prototype was made.

OPT products are designed using algorithms that try to optimize each fiber placement. The company’s swabs contain porous microstructures inside the head that are set to collect and retain fluid, and then release it quickly when it enters the test bottle.

“When we got to the swabs, we thought, ‘Hey, that fits great!’ “,” Ou recalls. “The swabs should be soft, flexible, the structures at the top must be very intricate. That is what we do. “

Ou worked with members of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and an external microbiology lab to compare OPT swabs with traditional cotton swabs resembling a Q-tip. Tests showed that OPT swabs released 20 times the amount of bacteria to be tested. This is important because more bacteria increases the sensitivity of tests, especially rapid tests, according to Ou.

Move forward

OPT’s additive production system can produce microstructures such as hair in a highly automated way, allowing OPT to compete on price with traditional swab manufacturers. The company is currently able to produce 80,000 swabs a day at its plant, and Ou says OPT is making newer versions of its machines that can produce products even faster.

OPT has secured partnerships with major healthcare organizations, such as distributor Henry Schein, to inject its swabs into hospitals, health clinics and home test kits.

Startup is also developing other medical sampling devices that use a high rate of bacterial collection to test for other diseases. In May, OPT will move to a new office in Medford, Massachusetts, which will bring together laboratory and production teams. Ou says the goal is to accelerate the cycle from idea to design, prototyping, optimization and production.

“We try to be similar [the multinational products company] 3M in additive manufacturing, “says Ou.” Everyone knows 3M because they have a lot of different products that are necessary for everyday life. That is the model we are following. Other medical and cosmetic products are also under development – swabs are just the beginning. ”

Researchers are creating a three-dimensional nasal swab to test for COVID-19

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