When Tom Milster, professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences, began developing a new type of spectrometer nearly a decade ago, he had no idea how important it could be during the current pandemic. A spectrometer analyzes the chemical makeup of materials, and the new breed Milster invented, along with co-inventors Pramod Khulbe and Barry Gelernt, operates in the vacuum ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Because of the wavelength in use, the UV spectrometer is between 2,000 and 6,000 times more accurate than prior devices, and is faster and cheaper to use.
Milster wrote a patent for the device through Tech Launch Arizona, which commercializes and licenses research at the university. The UV spectrometer patent was eventually licensed by Phoenix-based Botanisol Analytics, which then won a $1.5 million contract to build systems for the Air Force Research Laboratory. With additional "discretionary funding," Botanisol plans to develop UV spectrometers to rapidly test for COVID this fall.
“It’s one of those projects that started with a good application, but my enthusiasm for it has notched up quite a bit because of the potential application to the public good,” Milster said.
According to Milster, not only is the UV spectrometer more sensitive, but the sample being analyzed doesn’t need to be in a vacuum even though the wavelength is in the vacuum ultraviolet part of the spectrum. Because the wavelength can travel a small distance in regular air, there is minimal sample preparation involved, and the spectrometer can go anywhere with a standard wall outlet and requires minimal training to operate. While the sample to check for COVID, such as saliva, is still being determined, Botanisol estimates the new technique can be "18 times faster and 110 times cheaper than current polymerase chain reaction tests used for detecting viral RNA."
The UV spectrometer is one of many COVID innovations currently taking place at Tech Launch Arizona, which has announced useful developments since the pandemic set in. Among these is a respiratory-assistance device that mixes helium and oxygen, which has the potential to save the lives of those struggling to breathe due to COVID.
“It's essentially a step before needing to be intubated,” said Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona. “Intubation has a whole bunch of its problems on its own: it’s not necessarily good for you, there’s complications with it, there are problems for the caregivers because it allows for spray when someone’s breathing, and there’s limited quantity.”
Similar to the spectrometer, the respiratory-assist device was originally developed for a different use, in this case for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients.
"Then COVID hit, and we saw that we could have a huge impact if we could make this available quickly to clinicians and first responders," said co-creator Sairam Parthasarathy, professor of medicine and chief of the UA Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.
The respiratory-assistance device is now licensed by the startup company SaiOx—named in honor of Sairam—which is working to get the invention to front-line workers during the pandemic.
“It provides a way to get oxygen much deeper in your lungs much easier, because helium is lighter than oxygen,” Hockstad said. “And it's a closed system that doesn’t require intubation, but when you cover a person’s mouth and nose with it, there’s no spray and it recirculates the helium so there’s no loss there. So it helps patients breathe much easier.”
In an effort to move toward a more humanitarian licensing model for inventions during COVID, Tech Launch Arizona is a signatory to new guidelines from the Association of University Technology Managers. These guidelines state rapid pandemic response for intellectual property is best accomplished by "adopting time-limited, non-exclusive royalty-free licenses, in exchange for the licensees’ commitment to rapidly make and broadly distribute products and services to prevent, diagnose, treat and contain COVID-19 and protect healthcare workers."
“We’re really trying to support the ecosystem with results and solutions for COVID-19,” Hockstad said. “Like many universities, we immediately went to a model of trying to get things out quicker, with less concern about the license terms if they’re directly related to COVID-19 solutions.”
Other Tech Launch developments include a two-way texting system to collect information about COVID exposures in the community, and an online program that allows low-vision employees assistance in working from home due to quarantine.
In addition, Tech Launch has developed a list of their COVID-related technologies currently available for license. These include a vaccine platform with the potential to develop COVID therapeutics, a platform for conducting mobile device-based health interventions for contact tracing, and a microemulsion technology to reduce the surface tension of oil in water that can be used to prevent the spread of COVID.
“University research has been reduced. To comply with safety, labs were closed and it was only essential research that remained open,” Hockstad said. “Now all that’s starting to spin back up, and I’m expecting more and faster in the coming months.”