For the past seven months, the US has been fighting alongside the rest of the world to reign in COVID-19. From cutting-edge research and technical developments to recovery routines and last-line-of-defense treatments, cryogenics has played a number of roles—some expected and some surprising—to aid in the international response to the pandemic. Organizations and individuals are utilizing many applications that rely on cryogenics as the underlying technology.
TRIUMF (CSA CSM), Canada’s particle accelerator center, recently contributed research and development to the “bubble helmet,” a non-invasive ventilation (NIV) system. While traditional NIV systems are not effective for COVID-19 because of the potential risk of aerosolization, the bubble helmet seals around the neck, thus substantially reducing the aerosolization risk.
According to cosmicmedical.ca, “a collective of open source medical innovations for COVID-19,” the bubble helmet interface allows patients to receive high flow oxygen from either wall gas, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)/Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) or a ventilator. The designers hope that the helmet will “help support patients prior to requirement for intubation and ventilation, and allow for earlier step-down from full ventilation as patients improve, both strategies which would augment institutional ventilator capacity.”
Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has proven to be an invaluable tool for revealing more details about the coronavirus itself. Around the world, researchers are turning to cryogenically cooled microscopes to further map out the structure and function of the virus and better understand how to fight it.
A study published in Nature on September 17 by the Francis Crick Institute in London outlines the ten distinct structural states that the SARS-CoV-2 adopted to interact with the ACE2 human virus receptor. This work has dramatically accelerated vaccine and treatment research around the world and cryo-EM technology and the hardworking researchers working with the technology are to be thanked. While it was previously understood that the virus’ surface is covered in “spikes” that enable human infection, this represents the first investigation into the binding mechanism between the ACE2 receptor and the spike protein in its entirety.
Argonne National Laboratory (CSA CSM) has contributed heavily to the fight against COVID both in the US and abroad. “By using the ultra bright, high energy X-rays provided by Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, researchers are employing a powerful tool to determine the protein structures of the virus. By understanding the virus’s protein structure, researchers can lay the groundwork for potential drug therapies and vaccines,” a statement on their COVID response website page reads.
Researchers at Argonne are also helping to understand the virus through state-of-the-art supercomputing, providing insights that may form the foundation of a vaccine. At the same time, other scientists are modeling the further progression of the epidemic and ensuring that supply chains and key infrastructure remain resilient in a time of uncertainty.
Once a vaccine is developed, cryogenics may play an important role in the supply chain that ensures safe delivery around the globe. According to industry agencies like the FDA and CDC, a vaccine will likely need to be stored near -70 °C (203 K) during global transport. While this temperature does not meet the definition of cryogenics (typically beginning at 123 K and below), cryogenic cooling systems like liquid nitrogen are expected to be used to help ensure that vaccines safely reach even the most remote areas and those places where conventional cooling is not possible due to supply chain issues.
While these examples represent only a very small sample of the worldwide efforts to beat the pandemic, they underline an important fact: cryogenics enables some of the world’s most advanced and important research and facilitates groundbreaking developments in engineering and physics. While the world wages war on the invisible enemy that is SARS-CoV-2, cryogenics will continue to support those leading the charge. ■