Radio Cade

Rapid Testing for Multiple Viruses

March 17, 2021 Dr. Timothy Garrett Season 3 Episode 29
Radio Cade
Rapid Testing for Multiple Viruses
Show Notes Transcript

Making virus testing easy, or at least easier, will enable companies and organizations to reopen faster as we enter the beginning of the post-corona era. Dr. Timothy Garrett, the Chief of Experimental Pathology at the University of Florida, has developed a test that can detect multiple viruses, including variants, from a single sample. Better yet, this can be done in a portable lab for remote testing, potentially making it widely available in many communities. 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade and podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles :

Making virus testing easy, or at least easier will enable companies and organizations to reopen faster. As we enter the beginning of the post Corona era. Welcome to Radio Cade. I'm your host, Richard Miles. And today I'm pleased to welcome Dr. Timothy Garrett an Associate Professor and the Chief of Experimental Pathology at the University of Florida, as well as the founder of three companies, including Juno Metabolomics where he remains the Chief Scientific Officer. And he's also a friend. So welcome to Radio Cade Tim .

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

I'm glad to be here. Thanks.

Richard Miles :

So Tim, I usually save the toughest question for last, but I'm going to cut straight to the chase. How does a guy who did his undergrad, the University of Georgia and up at the University of Florida? Cause I thought we had rules preventing that from happening.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

There are a lot of social roles involved in that. But the short answer is that at the University of Georgia, I got introduced to a technique that allowed me the new area of study. And when I came to Florida and one of the top people in my field was here. And so I decided once I got in and this was a great place to go and we liked the warm weather and living in Florida, was attracted to that. So somehow they let a Georgia bulldog and to the University of Florida. And now I guess you can call me a true bull gator because I am a bulldog and a gator.

Richard Miles :

Well, I hope I haven't blown your secret and they rescind your tenure or something. Anyway, we'll talk a little bit about your background later, but let's start out by talking about what it is that you have actually developed and why we invited you on the show. And so you're an analytical chemist and you basically specialize in finding stuff and by stuff, I mean small molecules and where they come from. And if I understand correctly, you have developed a test that can detect multiple viruses, including variants from a single sample and better yet. This can be done in a portable lab for remote testing. So has obvious implications for the era that we're in right now, which is sort of coming out of the coronavirus . But first of all, did I get that completely wrong? Cause you know, I got my degrees in international relations, which should scare you. So tell us what this test does, how it works and why it matters.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

You got it almost a hundred percent correct. So good job. It's a test that basically allows you to look at saliva, right? Isolate out instead of small molecules, isolate out proteins that are specific to individual viruses and that includes individual variants as well. And then allow you to measure those individual proteins in a portal style format. So basically in general, it's a fairly simple process. We isolate the proteins and then we measure those proteins using mass spectrometry. And the cool part about the reason mass spec is important for this is it's the, of the masses. Meaning that how much the proteins way allows us to really distinguish which protein it is and which virus it comes from. And that includes SARS coronavirus and the original one, as well as SARS cov two. And in Florida, we care about mosquito borne illnesses like Dengue and Zika and other ones. And it allows us also to see those unique patterns that allows us to really differentiate, which is which, and so the really cool part is that from that simple saliva sample, we'll be able to diagnose what virus the person is infected with. And that would then allow us to really start treatment very much quicker rather than waiting for PCR, which would really only capture one specific virus at a time rather than what we could do is really just search the library and find out what's there.

Richard Miles :

So if I get this correct, Tim is the standard of care. Now that in order to really identify whether someone's got virus A or B or C or D do they have to have blood drawn and then that blood goes off to a lab and then that you get a result back a couple of days later, is that the current state of affairs or is a real breakthrough here, this one, the saliva test part of it rather than the blood. And is there a speed element involved ?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

So you can test primarily as nasal swabs or saliva. Most of it was done with nasal swabs until we started thinking about saliva better. One of the key parts with current diagnostics is the use of PCR, polymerase chain reaction methods that are designed to target one specific part of a virus to amplify that signal, to really give you a really strong response. That means that you're limited to whichever piece of the DNA or RNA that you start with to amplify, which is very specific. And so you need multiple tests for that. The real aspect of this is basically being able to look at patterns. So using pattern recognition approaches to save this as one virus versus another. And that really equates to speed. So you can take 30 minutes to prepare the sample and be able to measure all the viruses versus what you might have to do in a normal clinical lab, which is conducted 30 to 40 to an hour long run to identify a single type of virus.

Richard Miles :

If we compare this to say like a lot of people have done already, like the saliva based coronavirus tests, but in that example, right, if I think I've got coronavirus, I ordered a test , they analyze it. If I had another virus, would that test pick it up or not?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

No, it would . It would not. So if you, instead of having coronavirus had the Zika or Dengue Fever, it would not capture that. And those have similar symptoms in some ways, headache and runny noses and those kinds of similar clinical symptoms, but you wouldn't know.

Richard Miles :

So with your process, somebody could walk into the doctor's say I feel lousy. I don't know what I have. They take a saliva sample and then you could potentially look at a whole bunch of different potential virus.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

That's correct. Yeah. And we've started small on purpose to build libraries in a small way, but then it would expand exponentially really. And the cool part about it is it because it's a library of information it's easily transmitted to individuals who have access to measuring in this way, which is part of the reason why it makes it very portable because it's really just querying a new database of information. And that database then provides the diagnostics.

Richard Miles :

So it's really in that back analysis, the saliva, right ? Cause this is an Elizabeth Holmes type thing, right. Where you're just taking one drop or something and saying, Oh, there are 87 different things wrong with you right?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Definitely not that, glad that you brought that up. That's one of the biggest concerns with developing a test is following that route. But we look at small steps to make sure it works, with just one virus at a time. Right. And then once you do that, then you say, okay, now we can keep building upon that. And eventually, yeah, you could do hundreds maybe, but that would be way down the road. This sort of translates what we do for bacteriology right now in the clinical world for bacterial identification, we use similar approaches to measure patterns, to help us understand which bacteria you might have an infection. And so that's running a sample and searching against the database to say, yes, we think you have this infection versus this one.

Richard Miles :

Excuse me, for asking basic questions. But is there any difference from a practical standpoint or an analytical standpoint when you're working with saliva versus blood? I mean, imagine working with slides a lot easier, right? Probably the way you handle it and care for it and store it is I'm guessing magnitudes easier than handling blood. But in terms of the information that you get from saliva, are you just as good or is it one notch down from what you could get from blood available?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Saliva is just as good. And I had the same feeling you had initially when we started working with saliva, that it should be easier. But in fact, it's 10 times harder.

Richard Miles :

Really ok, shows you what I know.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

I didn't either as an analytical chemist, it's sort of a fairly new medium for me, blood we know a lot about, and we have a lot of processes in place to deal with how to process it and how to get rid of different components. Saliva has higher variability from individual to individual, meaning that how much water you drink might affect the concentration of saliva. It has so many enzymes that are designed to break down food that those enzymes can get in the way of measuring other species that , that aren't enzymes like viruses that are present. And it still has the same infectious capability as blood does. And so if you get contact with saliva with viruses , so could have possibility of getting an infection. So from a perspective of trying to measure species that are in really, really low concentrations, the amount of other stuff present, causes a problem, Oh, and the other thing in our saliva, we have bacteria, right? The normal bacteria that live in a part of our gums in our mouth that are part of a healthy, as well as unhealthy mouth that are also confounding some of these issues. So you have sort of like a weird experiment that happens in our mouth every day when we eat.

Richard Miles :

But from a patient perspective, it's much easier obviously, right? Because nobody's faints from giving a vial of saliva where a lot of people are still nervous and myself included about getting their blood drawn. They really don't like it. So at least from the patient, it's probably better.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

That's a hundred percent true and it is easier to collect, right? Cause someone could collect a sample and drop it off rather than having to have a blood draw a thousand times much easier for individuals. And you can even send them a kit.

Richard Miles :

They sent it to you in the mail and then they just walk you through it online. Exactly what to do. There's obviously been a lot of attention the last year on fighting the coronavirus and almost exactly a year later, even as we're doing this interview about roughly 20% of the population, a little bit less has received at least one shot. And it's amazing. That is, I think some people have missed the breakthrough or maybe don't fully understand in the underlying technology of messenger RNA as a process to make the vaccine and what that could mean in treating other diseases. I know that's not exactly your field, but is that as big a deal as I've read or is that just hype?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

It is a big deal. Not only because of the speed at which it was developed, but the technology that's in there and it opens up the idea of changing how we do vaccines in the future, right? So normally we have a live virus, right? That's how you get the flu. The live virus has given you give a little bit of it that tells your body to react to the flu. And then when you get a real stimulus of the flu, you're immune to that, that's has some issues, right? In terms of growing it in terms of giving it to individuals, this one tricks your body in the same way to have an immune response, but uses messenger RNA as that trick. Right? And so now you can think about developing a flu virus. That's not a live attenuated flu virus that could be used to in the same manner and then follow the same procedures and also potentially being a lot broader spectrum coverage then we get with the current life virus where we have to guess, which is going to be the biggest outbreak this year. So to me, as a scientist, looking at it, people worry about the speed of development. They have to sort of understand that all of that speed, we still went through all of the same clinical trials. It just went a lot faster because we had the money upfront to get people in the trials and do this trial as much faster than it would normally take. But the science behind it to me is exciting. And the next four to five years and how this is used is going to be another phase of neurology.

Richard Miles :

Right. And if I understand it basically with the messenger RNA, you can basically trick or command your body, whatever verb you want to use into producing almost any protein that you want it to produce to fight off or handle a lot of different types of pathologies or diseases. And that is what has got researchers super excited. Yeah .

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Yeah. Some of the concerns was keeping it stable, right. And that's the only real concern right now is making sure that it doesn't fall apart or degrade, which is why you have to keep it that cold temperatures, but we're going to solve that and Johnson and Johnson's one came out and that somewhat solves that issue without worrying about cold storage. But yeah, and it's tricking your body using a way to really hone in on a specific response is really intriguing. How we then grow from here is something, I think the scientific community is really gonna learn a lot from in this phase, but also in controlling other viruses.

Richard Miles :

Yeah. As bad as this year has been for coronavirus . And certainly other people that have died has been a tragedy. Ironically, historians may look back on 2020, 2021 as making this huge breakthrough in treating, not just coronavirus, but other types of diseases and viruses that even five years ago or 10 years ago, if we'd been talking about trying to develop a vaccine inside of basically a year, less than a year or 10 months, that just would have been on the level almost of scifi .

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Exactly. And then also scaling it up and then manufacturing, not just developing but manufacturing yet at a high enough level to get people, even if we're at 20%. Now we really only started vaccinating people in late December, January, right?

Richard Miles :

The first few weeks is pretty chaotic if not incompetent. And so really a ton of the vaccination have taken place and probably the last four weeks or four to five weeks.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Exactly. And you've mentioned something about the scientific part of it to me as a scientist, when the world sort of stuff went on different lockdowns, depending on what state you were in, the scientific community , started digging through the science really fast. We had some more time on our hands because we couldn't sit in our labs and do experiments. So we started looking back at old papers that maybe we had to study before. And so what we saw then after that two month hiatus was after that you saw an explosion of scientific discovery, which to me was really fascinating to see. And if you look at the bio archives where people publish early work, you can sort of see how many COVID related publications came out from people who aren't even studying viruses in the past that sort of got interested in thinking about a problem in a new way. So the scientific discovery, I think from this is one of the very interesting things to see, and then what comes all through this and what generation of scientists tackle this in a different way .

Richard Miles :

That's a great point. So let's move from science to the world of business, like a fair number of researchers you've taken several of your technologies or research that you've done informed several companies and every story is different. So let's hear yours, what, or who gave you the idea of commercializing some of the technologies and how are these companies doing?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Commercializing really comes from me within and from other people that I've learned from the idea of taking something that you develop as a scientist and then write a paper on, but then also deciding how can we help communities with this? How can we design something that not only has good scientific background, but also can be implemented somewhere that helps us grow it as a community. Part of that, of course, the Cade. Robert Cade was a key part to see a scientist who's working at the University of Florida, right? Developing a product that then becomes something that people really use and need in many different ways, whether there's a , for normal healthcare , but also just for sports management. So seeing another scientist go that route is a way that I've really enjoyed trying to solve the right problems in a way that balances being an academic, but also trying to be an entrepreneur. And so with this new company that we're in is only a couple of years old. It's still growing as a company with not just the virus. In fact, we didn't start it as a virus based company. It started as an analytical testing company for metabolomic measurements and performance, right? Measuring performance enhancement and understanding that how we can improve individual's recovery and those kinds of components that go into management of athletes. And then when we couldn't do that research for a little while, we moved on to thinking in new ways and how we could use the knowledge of the company to help and the virus space. And my background is a scientist.

Richard Miles :

So Tim , sometimes as you well know, the world of basic research and academia is quite different than the world of startups and entrepreneurs and venture capital firms and so on. How did you negotiate that transition? And what do you notice in terms of those two different universes?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

So speed is one of the first things academic research is fairly slow and partly because you have to find funding right through different areas. And so you ended up having a much slower pace. And when you switched to a corporate or company based work, do you have to be much faster in terms of implementing something and coming up with a solution faster and you can't necessarily do that without compromising sort of the science behind it. So part of it is making sure you have the right funding in place fast enough to hire the right people, to help those right problems, putting my academic hat on. It's harder to make that fast paced translation for me. And so relying on others that we have in the company to help move that at the right pace is really what I've found to be the most beneficial part. Because training me is sort of like training a dog, a new trick, right? It takes a lot longer to train something new. You don't end up keeping your old tricks. So really finding new people is one of the key benefits to me.

Richard Miles :

The Cade Prize competition, we talk to a lot of folks who have done exactly what you're doing in terms of moving their technologies to market. And several them have commented that the first shock was mostly in academia. And I know I'm generalizing here, but particularly in research, you work on research for a long time. You make a breakthrough, you publish it. You might go to a couple of conferences and talk about research and people applaud and go great job. And then you're off to the next research, right? You're sort of done, you've published your paper. And they're shock was when they take this to market and investors go, yeah, that's a great idea, but who's going to buy it. Who's going to pay for it. How fast can you produce it? So they all acknowledged the idea is great and that's not really the benchmark anymore. Good idea versus bad idea. It's good idea that can also be manufactured and sold. And that was a cold bath for some of these researchers. Who've never had to deal with that before.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Yeah. And you're sort of right. We do the research. We eventually published a paper on it and we talk about it. And then we think about the next research project. Can we sort of encapsulate that this is a publication from the work and go read it and we might often stop there versus yeah. The industry part is, okay, now this is a cool idea, but is there a market for it, right? Or is there protection for it, right. Maybe that maybe you don't have protection. And we run in this space in biomarker discovery all the time. You find a new biomarker, they're very difficult to protect. And so when you think about a company, you can still use a biomarker, but you might use it to develop the technology to measure that biomarker. And that would be then how you might translate a cut to make a company successful, putting that mindset on. It's like, okay, this result has a high percentage of being successful in terms of diagnostic of patients. So how can we then translate that to making a product that works and that makes money and that also provides value to the community. Right? And so one of the hardest parts for me is really that part of taking that research idea and really thinking about what it would look like in the marketplace and not all of them will work that way. And you have to sort of bounce those ideas off of colleagues or friends or people that you think about to say, is there really, truly a market for this? And then find investors that might be interested in sort of helping you translate that to something that they might envision as a different route to it. So I like the publication part, but I also really like trying to see if it really will make a dent. And to me, healthcare is a big part. So healthcare.

Richard Miles :

That's what a lot of people say is it gratifying as a recognition is from colleagues in the academic world. It's knowing that the technology, the research is actually helping people. And the only way that really happens is getting it to market right where it can help a bunch of people. And that's really provides a lot of satisfaction,

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Right? And often our studies are on cells or on other kinds of systems and not on say human samples. And so really you have to see how it works testing in humans to understand really, will it have any impact in the same way that it has in normal laboratory setting .

Richard Miles :

So Tim, at the beginning of the show, we talked about you did your undergraduate University of Georgia, but you actually spent your childhood in the Midwest and your dad also was a chemistry professor or a researcher and a lead scientist at Owen Corning's fiberglass. But when you entered college, you told me you wanted to be an English major, but then chemistry found you. So first of all, what happened? And secondly, was there any evidence when you were a kid running around with four siblings, right. That you would be a top scientific researcher, did that just sort of come out of the blue?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

If you ask my siblings, there's no evidence whatsoever.

Richard Miles :

They're still looking for it. Right.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

They're looking for it. Yes. And I'm the youngest of four. I'm a twin though. So I'm the youngest by three minutes. And so as a kid, I struggled in the beginning with math. I didn't do great about in middle school. I didn't really come into understanding what I was really good at it until college. So I sort of was just a normal high school kid, did the normal stuff and I have good grades here and there. I did like science and I knew stuff for my dad. I got to visit his company and see sort of stuff he did, but I didn't really quite understand it. And so you're right. That chemistry really did find me. And the only reason is because I had to take chemistry because at Georgia, I was in college of liberal arts and sciences. And so I have to have a scientific program. So I was like, Nope, chemistry. I'll take that. I can ask my dad any questions if I don't understand them. And then I took it and I really enjoyed it. I didn't think I would enjoy it. So then I had to take another general chemistry. So I took that and then I still was an English major or thinking about being English, which doesn't make any sense to me nowadays. But then it made a lot of sense, but I do like reading and I do like writing, but it really wasn't until I took organic chemistry. And a lot of people will tell you that organic chemistry is sort of cutoff points for both people, whether you like it or not. And so I took organic chemistry and I loved it. I could visualize the molecules in my head. I could really make connections that I didn't think I could ever see before. And so it really was connecting what was on paper, putting that three-dimensional figure in your head of a molecule coming together or the shape of a symbol , like cyclohexane ring, whatever. And that part was so fascinating to me that you could then see what it looks like, but then also make reactions happen. Right. And then make products from that. And then the last part was doing research in college. Right. And then figuring out like it take one a, the size of a needle, a sample type, measuring what's in that. And you can measure what was in that. If you just look at your pencil for a second, that's smaller than that we can measure. Right. And that's the , wow. You can really measure that amount of material and come up with an answer was pretty fascinating.

Richard Miles :

I'm guessing that your dad was quite pleased, right? His , his kid goes off to college to be an English major and comes back as a chemistry researcher. Right. He must have been quite happy about that.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

He was happy, but he kept pushing me into polymer chemistry because that's what he did. And so he wanted me to go that route cause he didn't really quite understand what I could do with analytical chemistry right away. But definitely he was encouraging a hundred percent of the way. And I learned a lot about how to do science or how to think about science from him and got to sort of bounce ideas off of him because he could understand what I was trying to go through in grad school and trying to understand different parts of it. He could really help me think through scientific discovery and because of his background, even though it wasn't the same field, he still sort of had that training and knowledge to help a lot on the way.

Richard Miles :

Right. Well, it's funny you had the opposite experience that I did. I was actually fairly good at math in high school. And then I got to college. I took my first advanced calculus class and just completely wiped me out. And I said to hell with that, I'm doing international relations. So, but , um, but my daughter became a math major. So it skipped a generation. So maybe your kids will be English majors Tim, theres still hope.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

There's hope that they could be there. That's that would be awesome. Yes. I totally support them whatever they like to do.

Richard Miles :

So Tim, you also told me earlier that research is hard and that experiments don't always work out. And one fascinating thing is you said, what you have found at least is at rest is really important. So can you expand a little bit about that? Because I get lots of rest. But I'm not working on any pathbreaking technology. So I feel like I'm doing something wrong. So what is your secret?

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Well, we sometimes get stuck thinking the same way all the time. I'm thinking about the problem , the same way all the time, because we either have our mindset that this is the way I've done it in the past. And it always works this way. And I continue to do that and we reach a part in research when you don't know what the next experiment is, or you don't know what the result means. If you keep trying to plug away and trying to just run experiment after experiment, you're not going to necessarily come up with the answer. Right. But I look at it as is, you have to forget about it . And the reason you have to kind of forget about it is if you read a science fiction novel, or if you read something unrelated to your field, that you might get this ding that comes off that says, wow, that's cool. And think about it in a different perspective. It's like, well, I've been thinking about it this way for the last six months. What if I just do this? And you might just get a clear mind and my wife is an artist, right? And so part of that comes from seeing an artist think and seeing how an artist takes a lot of time and energy to go through many things in their head draws, sketches, and then trying to really balance between science and art to me has been part of that rest. Right? So turning off my scientific mind and just thinking non scientifically for awhile helps me think about new ways. And that then might be the next experiment that you designed, that you could then write it out on a napkin because then all of a sudden you think this would be a cool experiment to do, and I need to do it. And then you still have the knowledge to know how to do the experiment, but you're just started from a different perspective.

Richard Miles :

I understand that rest of you is a relative term. You have a young kids at home and a creative, energetic wife who I feel your pain. She's usually volunteering you to do things to him that maybe you don't want to do, but you've got to do them anyway. But it's interesting what you say because a lot of brain researchers have said that there's creative sparks come in fact, when we do relax our brains , so to speak and we take our hyper-focus off of our, our subject area and we stand back a little bit. And then like you said, as an artist maybe stands back from their painting, they're able to see something there that they didn't see before. So you're definitely onto something.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Yeah. I'm and to me it's been the most beneficial parts are just taking a walk right outside and just looking at nature and not really contemplating anything, except it's talking with a friend or just looking at the birds or here in Florida, looking at the alligators and then you see something or it reminds calm enough to see through the problem. And I think that calming part is really what we sort of miss. Sometimes this high stress high speed environment, you have to have a calming force to really put pieces together. And I deal with data sets that have thousands to hundreds of thousands of features, right. Or signals. And we have to try and make sense of those and that you can't physically do that without having a relaxed kind of approach to it.

Richard Miles :

Very well said, Tim, and really have enjoyed having you on the show, wish you the best of luck with your research and also your companies. And look forward to having you back for an update.

Dr. Timothy Garrett:

Thank you very much for being a part of this. This is a great thing, and I'm glad that we could spend the time together talking.

Richard Miles :

Great. Thanks Tim .

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist Jacob Lawson.