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Lehigh University Team Working on Project to Disrupt Spread of Coronavirus

By Colin McEvoy on June 19, 2020

Lehigh University Professors Himanshu Jain and Frank Zhang (respectively), members of the team working on a new technology to disrupt the spread of the coronavirus.

A team of Lehigh University professors is working on a project to develop new technology they hope will disrupt the spread of the coronavirus, and continue to have broader public health uses even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

The six-person team received a $25,000 grant from the state of Pennsylvania this week for the project, which may result in a spray or antiviral product that can be coated on commonly-encountered surfaces and actively incapacitate the virus from further transmission.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the grant on June 17 as part of the Manufacturing PA Innovation Program COVID-19 Challenge, which sought proposals from state colleges and universities for the rapid development and deployment of new technologies, products, and processes to positively impact the state’s response to the coronavirus.

“We are fortunate to have some of the brightest minds in our higher education system, and they rose to the challenge in supporting our commonwealth during this unprecedented time,” Wolf said. “My administration remains committed to identifying new resources that can support our state’s businesses and communities as we continue to navigate this pandemic and the recovery steps ahead.”

The Lehigh University team will be working in partnership with Solvay USA, an advanced materials and specialty chemicals company. They hope a product can be developed in the next six months for use against COVID-19, but also plan to continue their long-term research on the technology so it can be put to broader use beyond the pandemic.

Current disinfectants and cleaning agents must be applied on potentially contaminated surfaces after exposure by each individual, thus greatly limiting their usefulness, said Himanshu Jain, professor of materials science & engineering at Lehigh University.

The team hopes technology they are researching will be effective on surfaces prior to exposure, and will last for an extended period of several days, much longer than disinfectants and cleaning agents currently in common use, Jain said.

“If you really want to stop people from getting infected by touching surfaces, public areas have to be cleaned after every time somebody uses it; every time someone goes into a restroom at a restaurant, a laboratory, or a hospital room,” he said. “If there was a longer-term solution that could last even a couple of days, the implications would be huge.”

The team plans to coat the surfaces with selected cationic polymer, starting their research with plastic and stainless steel surfaces. The chemical composition and the coating method will be novel contributions of the team, which includes experts on virology, materials surface engineering, disinfection in healthcare, and virus detection.

“This team was assembled in response to the COVID-19 situation, but the individual scientists on the team have all worked on different aspects related to viral infection, and have expertise that goes back many years,” said Frank Zhang, associate professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering & mechanics, who has previously done viral adhesion work related to the Ebola and Zika viruses.

Along with Jain and Zheng, the principal investigators of the project include Xuanhong Cheng, professor of bioengineering and material science engineering at Lehigh University, and K. P. Ananth, professor and Director of Cosmetic Science Programs at the University of Cincinnati.

Other team members include Anand Jagota, professor and chair of Lehigh University’s bioengineering program, and Yaling Liu, professors of bioengineering and mechanical engineering & mechanics at Lehigh.

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