BOZEMAN — In the effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and treat infected patients, special equipment that performs cutting-edge research at Montana State University has been repurposed to help Gallatin County health care providers.

Photo courtesy Michelle Flenniken.

Before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, formally named SARS-CoV-2, a machine in MSU researcher Michelle Flenniken's lab called a qPCR analyzer was used to detect viruses that attack bees and other pollinators around the state. Now it has been temporarily moved to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, where the tool can perform up to 60 much-needed COVID-19 tests per day.

"As part of our effort to understand the impact of viruses on honey bee colony losses, we routinely quantify viruses in honey bee samples using qPCR, and the testing process for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in human patient samples isn't all that different," said Flenniken, assistant professor the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU's College of Agriculture. "As a virologist, it is nice to meld my lab’s expertise with the expertise at Bozeman Health to work together to provide an important service to the community. Together, we are addressing this pandemic."

Hospitals and health systems around the nation have struggled to procure ready-made COVID-19 test kits due to high demand. Although more labor intensive than the ready-made kits, the tests using the MSU machine have been rigorously tested and give accurate results comparable to those at the state lab in Helena, according to Bozeman Health system manager for laboratory services Doug Smoot.

"We're hugely appreciative," Smoot said. Doing the testing in-house also saves time and frees up  testing capacity at the state lab for other Montana communities that send patient samples there, he explained. "It means we have the same capabilities as many of the larger medical facilities in the country."

In MSU researcher Blake Wiedenheft's lab, another qPCR analyzer is normally dedicated to studying viruses that infect bacteria. The machines work by using heat-induced chemical reactions to detect genetic signatures of viruses or other organisms.

When the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, Wiedenheft helped launch the testing initiative by using his lab’s qPCR analyzer to develop the testing procedure being put to use at Bozeman Health, with the expertise of MSU postdoctoral researchers Artem Nemudryy and Anna Nemudraia. Now that the testing has been launched, the tool is moving on to another research endeavor: joining a global effort to map the genome of coronavirus from local samples to observe how the virus might mutate as the pandemic evolves, just like cold and flu viruses change over time and often become less infectious.

"Everyone has really rallied to collectively address this challenge, and it has taken expertise from a lot of people," said Wiedenheft, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU's agriculture college. More than a dozen people have been instrumental in the effort, including Bozeman Health staff and MSU researchers and administrators, he said.

"We're fortunate to have MSU here and to be working together on this important issue for our community," said Christopher Nero, a Bozeman Health doctor who is one of just a few in the multi-state region that is board certified in molecular pathology by the American Board of Pathology and the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics. That certification meant he had the expertise to help ensure the accuracy of the tests and incorporate them into the hospital's procedures.

"It's a win-win," Nero said. "MSU wanted to be able to do coronavirus research, we wanted to test patients, and everyone wanted to work together."

According to Nero, the qPCR analyzer testing will initially be offered to Bozeman Health staff and Bozeman-area first responders who are at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus and will likely be expanded to include general patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

Flenniken, along with two people from her lab — virologist and laboratory research associate Katie Daughenbaugh and research assistant Cayley Faurot-Daniels — donated their time over the past week to validate the accuracy of the tests and help train Bozeman Health lab scientists.

Jason Carter, MSU vice president for research, economic development and graduate education, said it was "remarkable" to repurpose the MSU lab equipment so quickly and be able to meet standards set by federal agencies for accuracy and safety.

“MSU has incredible research going on in the area of infection disease and a broad spectrum of expertise to tap into,” including scientists who have spent much of their careers doing clinical research and studying how viruses spillover between animals and humans, Carter said.

Carter noted that, among many others, Alex Adams, professor and director of MSU's Center for American Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE); Diane Bimczok, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology; Mark Jutila, Montana Regents Professor and head of the microbiology and immunology department; Steve Martin, a lab director at CAIRHE; and Seth Walk, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, were all also involved in establishing the partnership.

The project is being supported by a grant of $100,000 from M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and a $25,000 gift from the Gianforte Family Foundation, which are also supporting a number of other coronavirus-related MSU research seed projects. "We want to thank these donors for their generous support," Carter said, noting that MSU's Office of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education is matching the grants on a one-to-one basis.

"This partnership is true to our land-grant mission at Montana State," Carter said. "We are thrilled that these efforts will help the Montana community."

- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -