NIH Awards $18.2 million to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University and Georgia Tech to Continue Verification of COVID-19 diagnostic tests

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Emory University School of Medicine and the Georgia Institute of Technology have received an additional $18.2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue their verification of COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The funding is from the NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program, an initiative designed to transform innovative technologies into widely accessible COVID-19 diagnostic testing.

In addition to the initial $31 million awarded to the team in May, Children’s, Emory and Georgia Tech have now received a total of $54 million from NIH for RADx projects.

In April, it was announced that Children’s, Emory and Georgia Tech were selected to lead the national effort in test validation and verification through the Atlanta Center for Microsystems Engineered Point-of-Care Technologies (ACME POCT). ACME POCT is one of five NIH-funded point-of-care technology centers in the nation within the Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN) selected to participate in RADx. The goal is to make millions of accurate and easy-to-use COVID tests available for at home or other point-of-care use. Currently, the Atlanta team has participated in verifying 41 tests and 14 have been selected by the NIH for additional federal support as they progress to market.

Primarily, ACME POCT will use the additional $18.2 million grant to finish verifying tests that the NIH merits as scalable for market in the next one to two months. The team will also advise the NIH on the best populations, with a focus on asymptomatic, positive cases, to further investigate current test technologies in larger clinical assessment studies and develop the best method for deployment. Finally, they will help advance promising high-risk and high-tech COVID-19 diagnostic tests that cannot meet the RADx fall deadline, for scale up in 2021. 

“As the pandemic has evolved, our RADx center has evolved with it,” says Wilbur Lam, MD, PhD, pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s and one of three principal investigators of the RADx project in Atlanta. 

The NIH funding will provide support through May 2021 to Children’s referral-only drive-through testing location at Satellite Boulevard. It will also help fund a new mobile collection unit led by Miriam Vos, MD, Pediatric Hepatologist for Children’s, which is aimed at addressing outbreak areas in metro Atlanta.

It will also support continued testing and work at Emory, where research supporting the RADx initiative spans the School of Medicine, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, the Rollins School of Public Health and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.  

“Our researchers have been ‘testing the tests’ for our nation, taking the most promising and innovative COVID-19 diagnostic tools submitted to RADx and objectively putting each one through its paces to determine its accuracy and viability,” says Greg Martin, MD, MSc, another of the team’s principal investigators as well as professor of pulmonary and critical care with the Emory University School of Medicine and chair of critical care for the Grady Health System.

Researchers have used nasal, saliva and other samples from people being tested for COVID-19, and used live COVID-19 viruses in Emory’s biosafety labs, allowing researchers to gauge the exact sensitivity of each test to varying levels of COVID.

Additionally, the $18.2 million award will assist in testing adolescent and adult populations at Emory and Georgia Tech to build the infrastructure for testing asymptomatic positive cases.

“The biggest need is to test asymptomatic people who might still have the virus, ultimately helping everyone go back to work and school,” says Lam, who also is an associate professor of the Emory University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. 

When RADx began in April, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) urged scientists and inventors with a rapid testing technology to compete in the national COVID-19 testing challenge to assist the public’s safe return to normal activities. The technologies were put through a highly competitive, three-phase selection process to identify the best candidates for at-home or point-of-care tests for COVID-19. Researchers at the trio of institutions in Atlanta were selected to validate and verify the tests.

Co-principal investigator for the Atlanta RADx team is Oliver Brand, PhD, professor at the Georgia Tech College of Engineering School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and executive director for the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology. Together, the team makes up one of the primary point-of-care technologies centers in the nation dedicated to the development and commercialization of microsystems (microchip-enabled, biosensor-based, microfluidic) diagnostic tests that can be used outside the traditional hospital setting, in places such as the home, community or doctor’s office.

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