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Mason researchers developing saliva test for COVID-19 antibodies

Mason researchers developing saliva test for COVID-19 antibodies
John Hollis
Tue, 04/28/2020 – 05:00

Lance Liotta, Co-Director, Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

A multidisciplinary team of George Mason University scientists is developing a saliva test to detect antibodies to COVID-19 and could begin screening student, faculty and staff volunteers as early as this summer. 

Mason will be one of the first universities to offer COVID-19 antibody research screening for students, faculty and staff. Screening for incoming volunteers in the fall will be coordinated by the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) along with the College of Science (COS). 

“All the different parts of the Mason research ecosystem are bringing their expertise together for this worthy purpose,” said Lance Liotta, the lead researcher and the co-director and co-founder of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM). “The goal is to evaluate if saliva can be used instead of blood for ease of screening for COVID-19 antibodies.” 

The project is an extension of an ongoing international collaboration with Italian microbiologists directed by Alessandra Luchini, the associate professor overseeing the CAPMM development of the laboratory antibody assay in the nanotechnology lab. 

Emanuel Petricoin, co-director of CAPMM, said Mason infectious disease, clinical care, clinical diagnostics and molecular microbiology researchers are working together to develop and assess the test for COVID-19 exposure. 

“This could have far-reaching impact for the local community, Virginia, the United States, and the entire world if an accurate method can be achieved and rigorously validated,” Petricoin said. 

Deborah Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, innovation and economic impact, said the collective effort epitomizes Mason’s commitment to advancing research of consequence. 

“More than 100 Mason faculty and student researchers are doing their parts to help thwart the COVID-19 pandemic, inventing new diagnostic tools like the one described here, as well as exploring promising therapies and vaccine delivery systems,” Crawford said. “Another team has developed a computational model to help hospitals and health care systems manage critical resources like ventilators and PPE, and our public health faculty and students continue to provide health care support to Virginia communities in need.” 

The university maintains one of 13 National Institutes of Health-sponsored Biosafety-level 3 Biomedical Research Laboratories (BRL), which has the facilities to handle COVID-19. 

Antibody tests are being intensely studied by medical scientists worldwide because they provide key information about previous exposure to COVID-19.  

Public health experts say it’s likely that there have been many undiagnosed cases in the United States. Recent blood-based COVID-19 antibody testing in New York has indicated that up to 20% of the population in some areas of that state could have been infected by the virus.

Most notable about the Mason project is its reliance on oral fluid, rather than blood, for antibody testing.
 
Oral fluid is much easier to sample for large-scale population and health worker testing, compared with blood used in other antibody tests to date. A simple brush in the mouth with a sponge can gather enough saliva to be analyzed in person using a rapid test or remotely by being plugged into a vial and put in a mailing envelope.

Mason affiliate faculty professor Raouf Guirguis has invented special saliva collection devices being used in the study, and the team will be comparing rapid tests for saliva and blood for COVID-19 viral protein and antibodies.

The new study takes advantage of several existing Mason-unique biobank collections that will be extremely critical for determining overall test accuracy and performance. They consist of oral fluid and blood collected by CHHS from its student cohort last year, from CAPMM’s cancer patient trials, and from a novel salivary biobank collected over the past several years from youth and collegiate athletes developed from traumatic brain injury-concussion research collaboration between CAPMM and the College of Education and Human Development. All samples were collected before the COVID-19 epidemic and are unique for specificity testing because they should all be negative.
 
“There is a great need to verify the specificity of commercially available COVID-19 antibody tests because we don’t want a test that will wrongly classify the common cold as COVID-19,” said Alison Cuellar, the director of research for Mason’s Population Health Center that is seeing patients in the Mason and Partners (MAP) clinics who may be eligible for the trial.

The work on the samples will be done at Mason’s Science and Technology Campus within CAPMM’s College of American Pathologists and Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified lab directed by Virginia Espina. An array of virologists, social scientists, microbiologists, structural biologists, and medical technologists from the COS and CHHS will also contribute.

“Antibody testing will be a key and critical component of decisions on how we will get back to work and back to school,” said Ali Andalibi, COS interim dean. “Antibody testing will be extremely crucial until the vaccine is ready.” 

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Mason student-athletes undergo COVID-19 testing as they return to campus

Mason student-athletes undergo COVID-19 testing as they return to campus
John Hollis
Thu, 08/13/2020 – 05:00

George Mason University is doing its part to limit the spread of COVID-19, as on Monday, Aug. 10, it began testing returning athletes. 

Roughly 30 Patriot student-athletes were screened at the Field House on the Fairfax Campus in a collaborative effort between the Athletics department and Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) and College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). It was the first of several scheduled screenings for student-athletes preparing to return to campus. 

“It’s a return to campus safely,” Athletic Director Brad Edwards said. “We feel like we’ve developed a pretty comprehensive system of protocols for the safety and well-being of our student-athletes, many of whom want to compete and not to lose a year.” 

Tests were scheduled in time slots five minutes apart to avoid unnecessary gathering.  Each student-athlete filled out the required paperwork before being led into a tent to wash their hands and have their noses swabbed by K. Alex Hodge, a research specialist and medical technologist with CAPMM. Because it was an antigen test, the nasal swabs were inserted just a small distance inside the nose, in contrast with the nasopharyngeal swabs used for the more intrusive Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing that requires deeper insertion. 

The student-athletes had already undergone PCR testing—in addition to 14 days of quarantine—prior to arriving back on campus. Antigen tests can determine whether a person has the virus or has previously had it and remains contagious. 

The men’s basketball team, which moved back into the residence halls the previous weekend, was the first athletics team to make its way over the Field House. Senior guard Ian Boyd was the first student-athlete to be screened when he arrived a little after 9 a.m., but was soon joined by a number of teammates. 

“It’s definitely different and going to take an adjustment,” senior forward Greg Calixte said of the new campus reality. “But we’re just excited to be back and looking forward to hopefully having a season.” 

“It’s different,” Coach Dave Paulsen said, “but it’s exciting to have them back. They’re excited to be back on campus and to be back with their teammates.” 

Hodge, who was fully geared up in personal protective equipment, tested each of the swabs inside the Field House lab belonging to Margaret Jones, a professor of Kinesiology within CEHD and the director of Mason’s Patriot Performance Lab. Test results were back by the day’s end. 

“This is a great collaboration between CAPMM in the College of Science, the College of Education and Human Development and the athletics department to help see to it that Mason students safely return to school and play,” said Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin, a University Professor and the co-director of CAPMM. 

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Mason team sets the stage for a test that can detect tuberculosis in children

Mason team sets the stage for a test that can detect tuberculosis in children
John Hollis
Mon, 08/24/2020 – 05:00

George Mason University scientists Alessandra Luchini and Lance Liotta head an international team that has developed a urine test that can detect tuberculosis in many types of patients, but is especially effective in children.Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

A team headed by two George Mason University scientists has developed a urine test that detects tuberculosis in many types of patients, but has proven especially effective in children. 

The groundbreaking test can work anywhere in the world and can accurately detect tuberculosis lung infection, even in absence of HIV co-infection. During a new clinical study involving 430 tuberculosis patients and controls from five different countries, Alessandra Luchini,  Lance Liotta  and their team discovered novel kinds of tuberculosis markers that reached high levels of sensitivity and specificity to meet World Health Organization (WHO) criteria. 

The test proved especially effective in diagnosing tuberculosis in children, where it is especially lethal when unidentified and untreated. The researchers recently presented their data in a paper published in the August 18 issue of the journal Science Reports

“Untreated children have a high mortality rate and are responsible for spreading the disease,” said Luchini, an associate professor within Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) within the College of Science. “A urine test is a very simple solution that can be deployed in developing countries.” 

The urinary markers identified by the researchers were able to correctly detect the disease in patients affected by tuberculosis infection of the bones, the larynx, and the brain and surrounding membranes, which usually require sophisticated and very invasive diagnostic techniques. 

Tuberculosis diagnosis in children currently requires sophisticated hospitals and very invasive procedures such as lowering a string into the child’s throat. Not even these techniques always provide a conclusive diagnosis, Luchini said. 

The researchers have identified a new type of biomarker that has high selectivity for children. Their urine-based test targets a molecule that derives from the surface of Mycobacterium—the microorganism that causes the disease—and can be used to directly monitor the presence of the microorganism in the body. 

Additionally, this study was the first to define a relationship between diabetes and tuberculosis, suggesting that sugar composition of the tuberculosis bacterium cell wall is altered in diabetic patients. 

“Tuberculosis is a deadly disease, particularly in children,” said Liotta, a University Professor and the co-director of CAPMM. “The number of patients we could help by an early urine diagnosis is in the millions.” 

The study was conducted on a large number of patients living in Guinea Bissau, Uganda, Peru, Venezuela and the United States, and defined the criteria needed for a worldwide test. 

The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Tuberculosis remains the world’s top infectious killer, with 10 million people annually falling ill from the disease and 1.5 million dying, according to the WHO. It’s the leading cause of death of people with HIV. 

College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm lauded the Mason researchers and their team for the partnerships that made the medical advance possible. 

“Our infectious disease experts are diligently working to solve the world’s toughest public health problems, including cancer, COVID-19, HIV and tuberculosis,” he said. “We appreciate the partnerships with NICHD and organizations that prioritize child health to allow our scientists to pursue these global breakthroughs. This proven TB testing method indicates that together we are making significant progress.” 

Luchini, Liotta and their team drew international headlines more than two years ago following their publication in Science Translational Medicine describing the use of nanotechnology to measure a sugar molecule in urine that identified active tuberculosis with a high degree of sensitivity and specificity, particularly in patients who were not co-infected with HIV. 

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Mason expands urine-based test for Lyme disease

Mason expands urine-based test for Lyme disease
John Hollis
Thu, 10/29/2020 – 05:00

Ruben Magni (left to right), Lance Liotta, Temple Douglas, and Alessandra Luchini pose in the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine lab. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services.

A urine-based Lyme disease test created by a team of George Mason University researchers could soon become available statewide after a recent clinical validation study confirmed that it meets sensitivity and absolute molecular specificity standards.

The research project, which was led by Alessandra Luchini, has been formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration’s Institutional Review Board after demonstrating its effectiveness among a cohort of 408 patients. 

“There are many controversies surrounding Lyme disease,” said Luchini, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the School of Systems Biology within Mason’s College of Science. “The state support has been essential for us to use our study to investigate the objective truth about sensitivity and accuracy about Lyme disease testing to help the citizens of Virginia and worldwide.” 

Luchini said that Mason is uniquely qualified to offer the test, citing the novel technology she and her team have developed and the high-tech laboratory certified for its reliability, accuracy and timeliness that is being used by Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM)

The College of Science provided two new mass spectrometry instruments that significantly increased patient testing capacity in the CAPMM laboratory directed by Lance Liotta, a professor within the School of Systems Biology and the center’s co-founder and co-director. 

“Using mass spectrometry, we can see hundreds of thousands of protein fragments in the urine,” said Ruben Magni, a CAPMM research associate. “We developed a new software to sieve through the data and to identify protein fragments derived from tick-borne pathogens with high-stringency criteria.” 

Luchini and her team have developed a method that detects molecules derived from tick-borne pathogens in the urine of patients. Molecules shed by pathogens are eliminated from the body through urine after circulating in the blood. 

The study was funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia and the National Institutes of Health. 

Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is largely caused by the bacterium borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, also known deer ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. 

The idea of a urine-based Lyme disease test originated few years ago when a high school student participating in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program, Temple Douglas, asked Luchini and Liotta to work on a test for Lyme disease, which had caused terrible suffering for her family members. Now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, Douglas used a nanotechnology invented by the Mason scientists to develop a test that detected one protein derived from borrelia burgdorferi. The nanotechnology used in the test has been licensed to the Virginia-based company Ceres Nanosciences. 

The early stage of the project was supported by the state through a Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corporation (VBHRC) grant that began in 2017, with trials beginning the following year. Since then, the Mason scientists decided to use mass spectrometry to expand the capability of the test to simultaneously measure thousands of proteins derived from all tick-borne pathogens, including Borrelia, Babesia, Rickettsia, Anaplasma, etc.

“Our goal is to expand the study to a statewide testing service, a clinical survey trial for which any doctor and any patient in Virginia can volunteer,” Luchini said.

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Mason COVID antibody testing shows a lot of promise in the body’s ability to fight the virus

Mason COVID antibody testing shows a lot of promise in the body’s ability to fight the virus
John Hollis
Mon, 03/01/2021 – 16:10

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COVID-19 antibody research by Lance Liotta and his team has shown the human immune system is better able to fight the virus than initially believed. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University researchers say their study of COVID-19 antibodies in people previously been infected with the virus reveals the human immune system’s strong ability to fight the virus, even if they showed minimal or no symptoms. Additional early results are showing that the vaccines being rolled out to combat the global pandemic generate a strong immune response. 

Lance Liotta, the co-director, co-founder and medical director of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) within Mason’s College of Science, and his colleagues are using an improved COVID-19 antibody test developed as part of a Mason clinical study to measure the body’s response to the vaccine. 

Based on months of study of patients who were naturally infected, Liotta and his team were able to verify that patients’ antibodies lasted longer than initially first believed and that they potentially helped prevent those patients from getting sick again. Early results of those who have been vaccinated have confirmed the shots to be strong boosters to the human immune system’s ability to combat the virus by generating more antibodies that block the virus spike protein tips. Tips of the spikes are the starting point for the virus to enter the patient’s cells. 

“This research offers truth and hope,” Liotta said. “The public is anxious and very worried about the virus. They want to know if the vaccines work. They want to know if the antibodies made by the body after a natural infection or after a vaccine will actively work to fight the virus. If I do get sick, can these antibodies help me? 

“The answer is yes.”  

That welcome revelation could be key in lessening the chance for severe sickness and limiting the spread of the virus. 

“Nevertheless we can’t let down our guard, and we must maintain social distancing and mask wearing practices that has protected our students and staff so well,” said Julie Zobel, Mason’s assistant vice president for Safety, Emergency and Enterprise Risk Management.  

Additionally, the expanded antibody research is providing scientists new clues about devising treatments for COVID-19, Liotta said, because of the many ways each of the different antibodies combat the virus. 

“We are humbled at how good the immune system is at fighting this,” Liotta said. 

Liotta and his team began their initial COVID-19 antibody study at the start of the global pandemic last spring. The testing allows scientists see how the body recognizes and reacts to the virus, particularly important when it comes to asymptomatic cases. 

“[Some of the subject tested] never knew that they had contracted COVID,” Liotta said, “but we can tell by looking at the antibodies that exist in their body. That’s a very important piece of information.” 

Antibodies, which are Y-shaped proteins generated by the immune system’s white blood cells, could prove critical in the fight against COVID-19. They attach to antigens much like a key to a lock to destroy invading germs. Once exposed to the virus, the body creates memory cells that will henceforth recognize the invader and spur the immune system to create antibodies to fight it in the future. So having antibodies to COVID-19 could possibly prevent people from becoming infected with the virus again. 

The aim of COVID-19 vaccinations is to stimulate a similar antibody response that would provide that protection from the virus. Liotta’s team of internationally recognized experts in diagnostic testing includes colleagues Virginia Espina, the research professor who oversees the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine’s CAP/CLIA certified laboratories, and Alessandra Luchini, the associate professor overseeing the development of the laboratory antibody assay in the nanotechnology lab. They will collectively use their expertise in clinical laboratory medicine, biochemistry, bioinformatics, molecular biology and infectious diseases to confirm those antibody responses. 

“Mason has been on the forefront of COVID research,” Espina said. “Since March, we have been working on different aspects of COVID research, and [Mason has been] very responsive to testing and keeping the campus community safe. We have done a wonderful job as a university in being able to keep the university open, prevent layoffs and allow students to come back onto campus.” 

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Doctoral student combines love of lab research with practical applications

Doctoral student combines love of lab research with practical applications
Colleen Rich
Mon, 03/29/2021 – 13:48

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Mason doctoral student Marissa Howard has worked at the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) since 2016. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

When Marissa Howard first came to George Mason University as an Honors College student and a scholar in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program, she was a biology major.

As she began looking for hands-on research experiences, her LSAMP mentor, Volgenau School of Engineering professor Alok Berry, suggested she give bioengineering a try.

“It really clicked for me,” said the Richmond, Virginia, native, and she ended up switching her major to bioengineering.

In her junior year, Howard participated in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP). That’s when she met Mason researchers Lance Liotta and Alessandra Luchini. She spent the summer studying the electrical properties of their Nanotrap technology.

“I really loved it,” she said. “I really loved them, and they were excited by the work I was doing and asked me to continue working with them. Since 2016, I’ve been in [the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM)] lab.”

Biosciences PhD student Marissa Howard tests vaccine efficacy in healthy and immunocomprised patients by running a rapid COVID-19 antibody test. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

For her senior capstone project in 2016-17, Howard led a team of bioengineering students—Sara Sharif, Sameen Yusuf, and Rohit Madhu—to create a noninvasive urine-based tuberculosis (TB) test called TB Assured, and the invention garnered a lot of attention for the team and many awards.

In addition to winning several Mason awards for being the best project of the year, the team also won the $15,000 prize from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge to help develop the test further.

TB Assured started as a dipstick test, much like pregnancy tests, that would find biomarkers of TB in urine. In an effort to make the test more sensitive and user friendly, Howard came up with the idea of using a paper origami cup as a next generation urine collection cup for the test instead of a test strip.

The biomarker-harvesting Nanotraps are in a glass wool-like substance embedded in the cup. After use, the cup is emptied, collapsed back into its original flat, two-dimensional form, and can be mailed in an envelope for processing.

Everything that’s in the urine is captured by the Nanotraps, and you don’t need a centrifuge or other equipment,” said Howard, who completed her bachelor’s degree in bioengineering in 2017. “People loved it. They keep asking when it is going to be available at their local pharmacy.”

Howard is now a doctoral student in biosciences at Mason. During the coronavirus pandemic, Howard was able to get back into the CAPMM lab, but now all the researchers are working on COVID-19-related research.

“We are doing some of the analytical validation studies to help different companies file for FDA approval for their rapid COVID-19 antigen tests,” Howard said. “That’s been really interesting and fun—seeing all these different tests that come in.”

For her dissertation, Howard is focusing on cancer research. She is looking at how cancer exosomes (small, membrane-wrapped packages released by cells) communicate. The findings could help create a new kind of immunotherapy.

“[Looking at the exosomes in a tumor sample] is going to tell you a little bit more information than just the pathology would,” she said. “It’s sort of telling you what that tumor is thinking and how it is communicating to its neighboring cells.”

With completing her PhD still about a year away, Howard is planning a future in a lab, possibly in an academic setting.

“I love the research space and the creative potential that comes with it,” Howard said. “You never know when your next idea is going to pop up.”

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Mason start-up Ceres Nanosciences experiences big wins and increases footprint in Prince William County

Mason start-up Ceres Nanosciences experiences big wins and increases footprint in Prince William County
Colleen Rich
Tue, 04/20/2021 – 08:49

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Ross Dunlap is CEO of Ceres Nanosciences and a member of the George Mason Research Foundation board. Photo provided

Ceres Nanosciences, a Northern Virginia bioscience company spun out of George Mason University that specializes in diagnostic products and workflows, has opened a 12,000-square-foot advanced particle manufacturing plant in Prince William County’s Innovation Park. The new facility increases the manufacturing capacity of Ceres’ Nanotrap® Magnetic Virus Particles, which improve diagnostic testing for viruses like SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus.

 

The completion of the new facility also reflects the partnership between Mason and the Prince William County Department of Economic Development (PWCDED).

 

“The PWCDED has a long-standing relationship with Mason, specifically with the Science and Technology Campus that anchors our bioscience hub in Innovation Park,” said Christina Winn, executive director of PWCDED. “Ceres was the first company to graduate our Science Accelerator, and we are invested in their growth as a leader, collaborator and innovator in our life sciences industry cluster.”

 

The construction of the facility, which was completed in under four months, was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative to expedite the production and commercialization of diagnostic tests for the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that has become known as COVID-19. Prince William County also supported the swift development of the site.

 

“We’re immensely grateful for the NIH funding that supported this new facility,” said Ross Dunlap, Ceres Nanosciences CEO. “Not only are we now able to deliver a robust supply of this critical reagent that the industry needs, but the facility also is a major element of Ceres’ long-term growth plan.”

 

Dunlap and his team have noticed significant gaps in the diagnostics industry and infrastructure in the United States, especially in response to an outbreak. He hopes that because the Nanotrap® Magnetic Virus Particles reduce sample processing time, eliminate the need for special kits, and create cost efficiencies, the technology can be leveraged to respond faster to future pandemics.

The Ceres Nanosciences production team. Photo provided

“It was very fortunate that we had put a lot of energy into developing the technology for viral infections and released a product for it before the pandemic, not even knowing that COVID-19 would come about,” said Dunlap, who serves on the George Mason Research Foundation board. “We were able to rapidly respond and quickly validate our technology for COVID diagnostics, which was done in partnership with Mason.”

 

The base technology underlying the Nanotrap® particle was created by Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM), which is led by co-directors Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin. The technology was funded with a series of NIH grants from the NIH lnnovative Molecular Analysis Technologies (IMAT) program.

 

It was then licensed to Ceres Nanosciences in 2008. Follow-on funding to advance the technology was awarded to the Ceres and Mason team by the NIH, the Center for Innovative Technology, Virginia Catalyst, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department of Defense.

 

“We are very proud to see that a technology developed under NIH funding at Mason has graduated to a product that is aiding in the fight against COVID-19 and promises to help patients all around the world for many other diseases,” said Alessandra Luchini, associate professor for CAPMM and co-inventor of the Nanotrap®.

 

With the assistance of Mason researchers, who played a large role in efforts such as testing particles and generating data, the technology evolved into a platform that can be modified and adapted to different applications, such as infectious diseases. For example, in 2015, Mason CAPMM scientists and Ceres Nanosciences demonstrated the use of the Nanotrap® technology for the detection of Lyme disease. Today, the Lyme Borrelia Nanotrap® Antigen Test is offered by Galaxy Diagnostics, a medical laboratory that specializes in tests for flea- and tick-borne pathogens.

 

“Mason has a lot to offer when it comes to cutting-edge technologies,” said Hina Mehta, director of the Office of Technology Transfer. “We are always looking for the right partners, like Ceres Nanosciences, who can take our research discoveries to commercial-grade products that benefit the public.”

 

Ceres Nanosciences and Mason have worked together since the company’s genesis. Ceres’ first lab was on Mason’s Science and Technology Campus, and the two organizations have collaborated on numerous research projects.

 

“Mason has consistently been a resource that we go to when we need extra support and research power,” said Dunlap. “The researchers have a range of backgrounds that we need: from virology to microbiology to proteomics. Their areas of expertise have been critical across a lot of our development programs.”

 

Dunlap said he and his team, along with continued support from Mason, are eager to help people return to pre-pandemic life.

 

“Our team is incredibly excited and motivated to come to work every day and produce these particles so that people can go back to work and school,” said Dunlap. “We’re proving why this technology has such value and why it can do so much for public health.”

 

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Mason research could change the way concussions are diagnosed

Mason research could change the way concussions are diagnosed
Colleen Rich
Thu, 07/01/2021 – 10:54

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Two research professors at George Mason University, in collaboration with global partners, have discovered the same protein biomarkers in the saliva of youth and collegiate athletes who have experienced concussive and sub-concussive impacts.

Shane Caswell

The findings, if validated in larger, independent studies, could be used to develop a new, rapid, noninvasive, saliva-based test for concussion diagnosis and management, as well as a way to monitor changes to the brain following exposure to repetitive sub-concussive impacts.

The study, conducted by Mason professor of athletic training Shane Caswell and University Professor Emanuel Petricoin, was recently published in the Journal of Neurotrauma.

“Salivary biomarker research can, hopefully, enhance already existing tools that diagnose concussions, as well as track brain health over time,” said Caswell, one of the study’s lead researchers and executive director of Mason’s Sports Medicine Assessment, Research, and Testing (SMART) Laboratory. “This is valuable, not only in all levels of sports, but also in military settings.”

Concussion and repeated sub-concussive impacts, which are blows to the head that do not produce immediate symptoms, could have long-term adverse health consequences if athletes return to contact activity too soon.

Concussion management currently relies on subjective measures to inform clinical judgement. New strides have been made recently, such as a handheld blood test developed by Abbott Laboratories to diagnose concussions. But there continues to be limited understanding of how repeated sub-concussive impacts, that frequently do not cause concussion symptoms, affect the brain.

Emanuel Petricoin

“There is a need for nonsubjective, diagnostic measures to be able to assess someone’s traumatic brain injury level, either in a concussed or sub-concussed state,” said Petricoin, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM). “This is important for health care providers so that they can make accurate medical judgements.”

Mason’s research identified antibodies in saliva that target proteins such as HTR1A, SRRM4, and FAS, which are known to play a role in brain physiology and function. Their presence correlates with concussions and how many hits and athlete sustained during a season of play.

Compared to healthy athletes, individuals who were diagnosed with a concussion, or who suffered high exposure to sub-concussive impacts, showed an elevation of the same salivary biomarkers.

The research team worked with youth, high school, and collegiate athletic teams and their medical staffs across the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, to collect saliva to create a Sport-Related Head Trauma Salivary Biobank. This first-of-its-kind biobank contains saliva collected from healthy athletes, athletes diagnosed with concussions, and athletes who sustained repetitive sub-concussive impacts.

Sensors worn by the athletes measured the number and severity of hits. Collected saliva was tested using a Mason-developed nanoparticle technology. Analysis was completed by researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, which is a leader in the world of autoimmunity research.

“Once someone has experienced a concussion, it is hard to know when they are fully healed from it, meaning it may take less of an impact for a second concussion to occur,” Petricoin said. “It’s important to study concussion biomarkers in youth because growing evidence suggests that if we can monitor head impacts more effectively, it will support their long-term health.”

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Honey bees and their honey could be a big help in solving police cases

Honey bees and their honey could be a big help in solving police cases
John Hollis
Tue, 01/18/2022 – 14:33

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Volunteers plant perennials at the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory in support of ongoing research to determine if traces of human remains can be identified in the plants or in the honey produced by pollinators. Photo by Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications

An unlikely collaboration between George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative and the new outdoor Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory could yield critical advances in forensic science. 

Mason teams from a number of different fields are working in unison at the Science and Technology Campus in Manassas, Virginia, on an ambitious project to see if the honey produced by bees after feeding on flowers can help them better locate missing persons. 

“The focus of forensics is to solve cases,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, the head of the Forensic Science Program within Mason’s College of Science and a former FBI profiler. “Outdoor crime scenes have always posed a challenge to investigators, particularly identifying the location of human remains. The bee research will allow us to scientifically demonstrate that identifying bee activity in bee farms or in the wild and analyzing their proteins can help lead investigators to human remains. In this case, the bees are our new partners in crime fighting, and that’s amazing science.” 

Proteins in bee honey contain biochemical information about what the bees have fed upon. That information has previously been used to detect the chemical signature of pesticides in honey, allowing observers to deduce what specific types of pesticides were being used within the five-mile radius from the hives that honey bees typically frequent. 

Similarly, O’Toole and her team believe that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of human decomposition might likewise be found in bee honey, allowing authorities to then triangulate where missing human remains might be located. That ability could ultimately help spare grieving families additional extended angst while also saving thousands of hours in the search for a missing person. 

“If we can determine what the VOCs are for humans and differentiate that from other animals, we could then use the bees and their honey as sentinels, and, hopefully, find missing persons and solve cases,” said Anthony Falsetti, an associate professor of forensic science. 

Their belief is based on the premise that flowering plants near dead bodies will uptake the VOCs before being fed upon by the bees and ultimately being deposited in their honey. 

Alessandra Luchini, an associate professor within Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM), has perfected a method to extract proteins from the honey. She and Lance Liotta, a University Professor and CAPMM co-founder and co-director, have been involved with the project from the outset, following the idea’s origins at one of the monthly research meetings with the Forensic Science Program. 

Honey bees are very specific in the kinds of the flowers to which they’re attracted. Doni Nolan, Mason’s Greenhouse and Gardens sustainability program manager from the School of Integrative Studies within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, applied her expertise to the project, choosing the right flowers to plant within the specific one-acre section of the newly opened Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory that will house the remains of human donors in a heavily wooded area. The honey bee hive on the SciTech Campus is located several hundred yards away from the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory. 

Volunteers prepare to plant flowers at the Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory. Photo by Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications

In November, students and researchers planted several different species of plants, which bear highly scented white and yellow blossoms, near the spots where the human remains will soon be displayed. Additional plants native to this area will be planted in the spring before the first honey samples are examined, Nolan said. 

“You’re trying to see if the honey and the bees can help us find a body and solve a homicide,” said Nolan, who has a biology degree from Mason and is working on a PhD in biosciences. 

The five-acre, Forensic Science Research and Training Laboratory opened in early 2021, making Mason just the eighth location in the world capable of performing transformative outdoor research in forensic science using human donors and the only one in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

Donation of human remains to the research facility will come through the Virginia State Anatomical Program (VSAP), which is a part of the Virginia Department of Health. Go here to learn more about donating your body to science. 

Mason also entered a partnership with FARO Technologies, Inc. that resulted in the world’s first FARO-certified forensic laboratory. 

In addition to those in the Forensic Science Program, the multidisciplinary project also includes the caretakers of the honey bees, as well as researchers and students from CAPMM, as well as from the Department of Environmental Science and Policy within the College of Science and Office of Sustainability, all of whom helped select the plants for the research design.

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Mason’s surveillance testing team honored for its efforts

Mason’s surveillance testing team honored for its efforts
John Hollis
Mon, 02/28/2022 – 15:46

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Mason formally recognized the many dedicated scientists, first responders, program administrators and medical personnel whose tireless efforts paved the way for the school’s successful COVID-19 surveillance testing program during the global pandemic. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University officials on Monday formally recognized the many dedicated scientists, first responders, program administrators, staff and medical personnel whose tireless efforts paved the way for the school’s successful COVID-19 surveillance testing program during the global pandemic.

The reception in their honor at Merten Hall was Mason’s way of giving a heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

“I can give you all a thousand thank you’s,” said Mason President Gregory Washington. “And I know the reality is that it doesn’t happen if you all don’t make the commitment, if you all don’t put in the hard work, if you all don’t put in the extra hours, if you all don’t have to deal with the changing policies and the struggles that we were in many cases foisting upon you. But you did it, you did it admirably and your results are spectacular.”

Since the program’s inception in fall 2020, Mason has administered more than 155,000 COVID tests to students, faculty and staff. Processing the tests in Mason’s own labs means results are returned within 24 to 48 hours. The fast turnaround time meant Mason scientists could quickly identify and isolate positive COVID cases which lead to timely notification to those members of our community that needed to self-isolate to mitigate outbreaks within the Mason community.

The quick turnaround required immense time and staff power, key factors in helping keep the community safe while elevating Mason to national prominence for its response to the pandemic. The university’s ability to  monitor the prevalence of COVID within the campus community and transmission rates played a key role in the decision to open its doors on time for fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters.

Lance Liotta, the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine within Mason’s College of Science which oversaw the testing, called what his team accomplished “historic.” Liotta noted that his team conducted 1,000 thousand tests on Friday, Feb. 25, without a single positive case of COVID.

Carol Kissal, Mason’s senior vice president for administration and finance, lauded the team for their efforts that have served to inspire the entire Mason community.

“You have all been part of something that is pretty phenomenal,” she said.

The surveillance and diagnostic testing program started in the Ángel Cabrera Global Center parking garage in late August 2020, where staff overcame the elements and other unexpected technological hurdles to help Mason navigate the early stages of the COVID pandemic and COVID virus of which very little was known at the time. It wasn’t long before Mason’s COVID Response Team and scientists had devised new collection procedures at sites across all of Mason’s campuses, each aimed at keeping site staff and test participants safe through an efficient and expeditious testing process.

Mason’s reliable surveillance testing system is also critical in allowing Mason student-athletes to continue competing safely throughout the pandemic.