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USF Touting Teamwork To Create 3D Swabs For COVID-19 Testing

Summer Decker, PhD, director of USF Health's 3D Clinical Applications Division
Courtesy: USF Health
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

About two weeks ago, Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, came to researcher Summer Decker with a question for her and her colleagues: could 3D printing help alleviate the shortage of nasal swabs used in COVID-19 testing kits?

Since then, the director of 3D Clinical Applications in the college's Radiology Department and her team have been hard at work.

First, they created a design for the swabs, reached out to others working in 3D design on the Tampa campus, and then turned to USF's Division of Infectious Disease to refine and narrow down design choices.

Patient safety and comfort had to be a priority because the test requires the swab to be placed up the nose.

Decker said the 3D team at USF and Tampa General Hospital usually work on 3D modeling and printing for pre-surgical or pre-procedure planning in different departments.

"So, we have materials that we knew were... surgical-grade, patient-safe materials. So when this happened, we had a trauma case that week, so that material was actually in one of the printers," said Decker.

A batch of nasal swabs created using USF's 3D printers.
Credit Courtesy: USF Health
The Florida Channel
A batch of nasal swabs created using USF's 3D printers.

The researchers reached out to Formlabs, which makes 3D printers, for more of the surgical-grade resin needed to build the swabs. They also worked with New York-based Northwell Health.

The group experimented with a number of different models for the swabs, since the traditional wooden and cotton swab people may recognize causes a reaction in the COVID-19 test kit. In addition, they couldn't replicate the swab in the coronavirus test kit, which, like a mascara wand has flocked nylon at the tip, because that design is proprietary. 

"So what we were able to do is create a design that has ridges and as we call them 'nubs,' these little bumps around it, that had enough surface area to be able to get a mucosal and epithelial sample, so that's the tissue we have to be able to get a sample from. Get enough of a sample of that and be able to hold it for long term, well, until it gets tested," she said.

RELATED: Florida 3D Printers Making Face Shields For Hospitals, Coronavirus Testing Facilities

Decker said virologist Dr. Michael Teng of USF Health's Department of Internal Medicine did scientific studies on the swabs for a week.

That included a 24-hour test to determine how the swabs would hold up; a three-day test with respiratory viruses on the swabs to see how well they held viral load; and a study to determine if the tip was able to get enough of a tissue sample to conduct the COVID-19 test.

The swab passed all the tests.

From there, Northwell Health, which was out of nasal swabs, ran a clinical trial on the USF-designed nasal swabs. Decker said that test was also successful.

Now, Teng and the head of USF's Infectious Disease Department, Dr. Kami Kim, are continuing their research to show that this nasal swab works the same as the traditional swab in the coronavirus testing kit. There's also an ongoing clinical trial with USF and Tampa General.

Decker said a process that would normally take years has been done in about two weeks because of long hours and teamwork.  She and her engineer have been in the lab for 15 straight days, and there have been a number of "late night emails and phone calls to stay on track." 

Three-dimensional printing is a time-consuming process, but Decker said they're printing about 300 in one printer at a time. With six printers in her lab, they can print about 3,000 nasal swabs in a day. But working with other departments, once the swab is approved, they can print many more. 

She said this kind of effort is also breaking down barriers. For example, she used to wave to Dr. Teng in the hallway, never knowing him, but now they are working together.

And she said, they are very optimistic that these swabs will be in the hands of healthcare workers soon. 

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Susan Giles Wantuck is our midday news host, and a producer and reporter for WUSF Public Media who focuses her storytelling on arts, culture and history.