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April 2020

Intern works to advance global health and COVID-19 solutions

At a glance
The intern

Ilaria Rubino, PhD candidate at the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta (supervised by Professor Hyo-Jick Choi) and Mitacs Globalink Research Award intern.

Hosted by

Professor Sang-Moo Kang’s virology lab at Georgia State University, U.S.

The research

The goal was to further characterize the salt coating developed at the U of A for facemask filters by fine-tuning the properties to match different conditions of mask use and storage.

The overall goal of the research internship was to further characterize the salt coating developed at the U of A for facemask filters by fine-tuning the properties to match different conditions of mask use and storage.

With the spread of COVID-19, a leading University of Alberta research team has developed an innovative coating capable of killing viruses.

Within the laboratory of University of Alberta Professor Hyo-Jick Choi, researcher Ilaria Rubino, PhD candidate, works on a special salt coating that can be applied to surgical masks and respirators to effectively kill viruses. When liquid droplets come into contact with the coating, the salt dissolves in the liquid and begins to evaporate. As salt crystallizes during the evaporation process, the crystals grow and sharpen, destroying the virus with their pointy edges.

“We’ve tested our system on three different influenza viruses and have shown that the virus on the surface of a coated contaminated mask is inactive within five minutes and completely destroyed within 30 minutes,” says Professor Choi.

Based on these results, the technology is now in the process of being commercialized, and the team expects it to be widely available within 12 to 18 months.

A note to readers — this is not a do-it-yourself project. With 23 years of combined research experience, the team has spent more than 10,000 hours refining this technique.

Engineering + immunology = innovation

Ilaria, originally from Italy, had a portion of her graduate studies funded through the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, a program that supports internships through international collaborations at partner-country universities. During her exchange, she conducted experiments to study the coating’s effectiveness within Professor Sang-Moo Kang’s virology lab at Georgia State University, USA.

The overall goal of the research internship was to further characterize the salt coating developed at the U of A for facemask filters by fine-tuning the properties to match different conditions of mask use and storage. At Georgia State, she received intensive research training on influenza virus production and conducted experiments on the salt-coated filters, complementing her background in engineering by collaborating with distinguished experts in the field of immunology.

The internship provided Ilaria with greater insight into the effectiveness of the coating in killing viruses and the mask design, which has enabled her to make further contributions to the Chemicals and Materials Engineering lab at the U of A that her supervisor, Professor Choi, leads.

Unique career skills

“The opportunity to develop expertise in immunology-related techniques in an interdisciplinary, first-class environment was outstanding,” says Ilaria. “The impact of participating in the Mitacs program extends to my career overall, as I am now equipped with a unique set of research and professional skills with which to critically contribute to the progress of my field.”

Professor Choi notes that the existing partnership between his group and Professor Kang’s group was reinforced by the collaboration and will lead to academic publications and further collaborations.

Canadian lab — and society — benefit from exchange

“The skills Ilaria developed at Georgia State were transferred to our lab’s personnel, overall increasing the research potential of our group,” says Choi. “Combined with the already existing research expertise and resources of our team, this will lead our team to explore innovative solutions in the fields of immunology, drug delivery, and biomedical technologies.”

As Ilaria has been the main researcher to work on the salt-coated masks project for five years, she states, “It’s remarkable to have the opportunity to positively affect the health and wellbeing of so many people through engineering. Our technology will contribute to global health by improving infection prevention of pandemic and epidemic diseases.”


Background:

In 2003 with the SARS outbreak, several Mitacs-affiliated mathematicians quickly united as a team to develop a research solution. The outcome of their research was an equation quantifying the necessary 14-day quarantine period to effectively halt the spread of SARS. They shared their research and made recommendations to inform Canadian public health policy, undoubtedly saving many lives. Today, Mitacs works to drive innovation with partners studying infectious diseases and a myriad of other challenges.

COVID-19-related news:

Photo caption: from left, Ilaria Rubino works with Professor Hyo-Jick Choi to develop a salt-coated mask that kills viruses.

Photo credit: Rich Cairney, Faculty of Engineering at University of Alberta.


Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada for their support of the Globalink research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Globalink research internship program also receives support from the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Manitoba, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan​.


Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities: BD@mitacs.ca