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Finkielstien and Helm talk to each other and point at a whiteboard in background
In this April 2020 photograph Carla Finkielstein (left), an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, is coordinating COVID-19 test development on the Blacksburg campus with Rich Helm, an associate professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads Core Services and the Genomics Sequencing Center at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Researchers team up to create testing center

Scientists increase the pace, scale of diagnostic testing for COVID-19

By John Pastor

In March 2020, with hospitals overwhelmed by shortages of critical resources and diagnostic labs glutted with patient samples, a campus-wide group of Virginia Tech faculty researchers, postdoctoral fellows, lab technicians, students, and administrators were focused on the limited access to testing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

Strengthened by the scientific expertise of Associate Professor Carla Finkielstein and Professor Harald Sontheimer of the College of Science, the group set out to create a new testing procedure to process patient samples from regional health districts.

During the next four weeks, Finkielstein, Sontheimer, and others trans-formed laboratories at both the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in Blacksburg into high-throughput COVID-19 testing facilities, meeting FDA approval. They developed measures to isolate and work with infectious samples, acquired new protective gear for lab personnel, and set up additional and more stringent safety and cleaning procedures.

“Everyone is helping in any way that they can from their positions at the university,” said Finkielstein, the scientific director of the newly created Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, where the sample testing takes place in Roanoke, and the Luther and Alice Hamlett Junior Faculty Fellow in the Academy of Integrated Science. “It amazes me. It is a true team effort.”  

The researchers developed a novel assay to identify the virus, using a real-time polymerase chain reaction protocol to test for multiple RNAs of the coronavirus in patient samples. Critical reagents were in short supply, forcing the scientists to innovate new procedures.

“We anticipated a wave of COVID cases, and we needed to be ahead of it,” said Sontheimer, I.D. Wilson Chair and professor of neuroscience. “It is a public health strategy because if you can immediately identify someone as positive for the virus it is a great help, because otherwise that person will infect more people unnecessarily.”

As the research-to-testing lab transformation continued, Michael Friedlander — Virginia Tech vice president for health sciences and technology — aligned instrumentation, facilities, and established protocols within state and federally mandated guidelines. 

“Despite the obstacles, Dr. Finkielstein rolled up her sleeves, went into her lab, and started cranking,” said Friedlander, who is also the executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute as well as a faculty member in biological sciences. “Carla is a non-stop force of nature with the compassion for service to others to match her grit and scientific acumen. She and her fantastic team of postdoctoral fellows worked closely and in parallel with Dr. Sontheimer’s group to develop the assay and prepare the protocols for implementation in Blacksburg and in Roanoke.”

"When the pandemic started spreading, I knew I needed to do something. This is my way of contributing something meaningful and tangible to society and our community in Southwest Virginia, so we can detect the virus rapidly, contain the disease, and prevent its spread." 

Carla Finkielstein

man, wearing a lab coat, sits next to microscope and turns toward camera
Harald Sontheimer in the lab.

The lab analyzed roughly 10,000 samples from April 24 to Aug. 7, 2020. All sample analysis operations are now integrated into a single facility at the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, headed by Finkielstein, at the new Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at 4 Riverside Circle on the Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke. 

Finkielstein said that the new facilities, located in the research institute’s infectious disease wing, offer the custom-designed state of the art space, equipment, and trained personnel necessary to continue scaling up the university’s testing operations. The additional equipment and personnel allow the Virginia Tech program to provide increased testing of Virginia Tech students this fall, and continue to serve the surrounding communities.

“As we continue to partner with additional health districts in Virginia to process samples, we needed to consolidate our testing enterprises to help us optimize our work and deliver results in a timely manner,” Finkielstein said. “When the pandemic started spreading, I knew I needed to do something. This is my way of contributing something meaningful and tangible to society and our community in Southwest Virginia, so we can detect the virus rapidly, contain the disease, and prevent its spread.”