Like many schools around the country, Colorado State University swiftly made the pivot to online learning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Buildings at the Fort Collins, Colo., campus were closed to all but those performing essential duties.
Dr. Chuck Henry, a ’94 graduate of Missouri Southern who teaches chemistry as well as chemical and biological engineering at CSU, and his colleagues found that the research they were conducting in their lab was definitely considered essential.
“The university shut down with the exception of essential research,” he says. “COVID was considered essential research. We wore masks and practiced social distancing. It hasn’t been business as usual, but we’ve still been effective in what we’re able to do.”
Henry, along with two researchers who specialized in virology and chemical engineering, had been working on projects focused on simple virus-detection devices.
“We were using the fundamentals of chemistry to detect bacteria and plant viruses,” he says. “When the COVID outbreak started, it was natural to pivot to the SARS virus. One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about chemistry is that if you understand the fundamental principles, you can apply them to different but similar situations.”
Their work has yielded three disposable devices that are similar to a home pregnancy test and use a finger prick, nasal or saliva swab to get a diagnosis in as little as 10 minutes. The tests have been licensed by three separate companies and could move into production within the next sixth months to a year. The researchers were also named semi-finalists in the COVID XPrize competition – in which researchers around the globe are working to develop cheap and easy-to-use tests.
“The next step is testing true clinical samples to ensure the accuracy of the test meets the needed criteria, and to line up partnerships with those who can make and distribute the tests,” he says.
“We’re using a different set of reagents, so we won’t get into the same supply chain issues that other tests use.”
Henry says his interest in chemistry developed at an early age.
“My dad was a chemistry professor at College of the Ozarks,” he says. “That’s where I got my passion for chemistry as well as the ability to learn core concepts and use them to solve problems people really care about.”
Henry says it was a combination of factors that led him to study chemistry at Missouri Southern.
“The smaller classes sizes gave me the ability to really interact with the faculty and other students,” he says. “From a professional perspective, it positioned me to go into grad school and my current academic career.
“A lot of the training I got there was practical and useful to help me on the business side. I’ve been involved in a number of start-up companies, and the training I got outside of my chemistry classes helped prepare me to lead some of these efforts.”
Henry says he’s happy to be collaborating with his colleagues and student researchers on a project that is tackling such a timely concern.
“One of the things my lab has always enjoyed doing is working on problems that have fundamental gaps that need to be addressed, but also have real-world impact on a shorter term,” he says.
“For me personally, it’s pretty exciting to be working on something that could help protect vulnerable populations and reopen the country.”