MSU Researchers Launch Second PPE Decontamination Method, Study How COVID-19 Proteins Fold

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have launched a second decontamination process to repurpose personal protective equipment (PPE). The university also has announced its idled computers are being used to simulate protein folding in COVID-19 to better understand the virus.
MSU vaporized hydrogen peroxide disinfecting space
MSU researchers are disinfecting PPE using vaporized hydrogen peroxide. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have launched a second decontamination process to repurpose personal protective equipment (PPE). The university also has announced its idled computers are being used to simulate protein folding in COVID-19 to better understand the virus.

The university’s new cleaning method uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide and, when combined with the heating process being used by MSU Extension, the university will have the capability to clean nearly 15,000 pieces of PPE each day.

Unlike the heating method, which can only be used to decontaminate N95 masks, the vaporized hydrogen peroxide process is safe to use on masks, goggles, gowns, face shields, and other safety gear. When operating at full capacity, MSU will have nine adjacent rooms using three robotic fogging machines to decontaminate about 6,700 items daily. The N95 masks can be reused up to 20 times using this method.

After equipment is loaded, the decontamination cycle takes six hours. Once complete and effectiveness is verified, the equipment is packaged and picked up by health care workers and first responders using proper chain of custody procedures. The process is designed to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination and ensure each piece of equipment is returned to the original user.

“As demand continues to exceed supply for this essential protective equipment, MSU is working to develop solutions to help extend the life of these products typically used once,” says Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., president of MSU. “That means thinking outside the box, looking at how our resources can be utilized in other ways, and being creative to solve a problem. Spartans don’t see limitations; we see possibilities.”

In partnership with Lansing’s Sparrow Health System and Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System, the MSU Animal Care Program is using an available animal research facility to treat thousands of pieces of equipment at one time. The effort is expected to soon expand to take in equipment from local first responders, including the MSU Veterinary Medical Center, Lansing Fire Department, and Lansing Police Department.

The university is the first public institution in Michigan to use the vaporized hydrogen peroxide process at this scale. The effort was spearheaded by F. Claire Hankenson, director of campus animal resources and university veterinarian.

“By far, this is one of the most invigorating projects I have been able to be involved with during my career – specifically, working with a multi-disciplinary team of faculty and local and statewide health partners to develop a solution that preserves and protects those on the front lines of this crisis,” Hankenson says.

MSU received assistance from health care professionals, environmental safety leaders, and supply chain and logistics experts to begin the process.

The system is based on published research that the Battelle Memorial Institute performed for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015 as well as on their approved emergency use application parameters. MSU is working with the FDA in anticipation of receiving authorization for decontamination of personal protective equipment on campus.

MSU researchers also are dedicating some of the university’s temporarily unused computers to protein folding simulations in an effort to better understand how diseases including COVID-19 are assembled and formed at a cellular level.

The scientists have used the technology to study cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Zika as part of an international project called Folding@home, and teams across the university are helping.

“Essentially, the project is a way of using unused processing power from multiple computers all over the world to do complex math,” says Sam Mills, a systems engineer at MSU. “When the power of those computers is combined, it adds up to a substantial amount of resources that researchers can use to study crucial health issues.”

In April, Folding@home creators launched an update to the software that allows people to prioritize COVID-19 projects.

“Right now, the project is focused on simulating protein dynamics of COVID-19,” Mills says. “Hopefully, this project will be able to provide data that helps us better understand COVID-19, and that could lead to better treatment methods. Our college (the College of Communication Arts and Sciences) is having a measured impact on COVID-19 research by donating these computational resources to the Folding@home project. That is pretty cool.”

Folding refers to the way a human protein folds inside cells that make up the human body. Proteins assemble themselves by folding, but when they fold incorrectly, there can be serious consequences to human health. For researchers, understanding how the proteins work depends on hours of mathematical computations and computer simulations. The simulations can be used to explain the molecular structure of the proteins, which are too small to see under a microscope.

The school’s state-of-the-art gaming and computer labs are being used in now-vacant buildings.

“In (the College of Communication Arts and Sciences), we have a unique opportunity to put the gaming computers to work. They have high-end graphics cards that are able to do these computational tasks very efficiently,” Mills says. “With students not allowed in the labs, the computers would otherwise be gathering dust, but instead we have this program running.”

Folding@home has been in operation since 2000. With software running on systems across the world, the goal is to reach 1 million folders.

“What I love about being a Spartan is that even when we have to completely adjust our teaching and research, we look for ways to make a difference,” says Eric Hunter, associate dean for research at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. “We can remotely utilize our idle state-of-the-art teaching facilities, all while keeping our faculty and students safe at home. We have repurposed our tools toward predicting potential protein structures, which are important to understanding disease as well as stable mini-proteins that could be used in potential therapeutics and diagnostics.”

Many MSU teams have contributed to the project, which includes rankings by folding simulation activity. At the time of publication, MSU’s ranking was 305. There are hundreds of thousands of contributors.

Originally launched at Stanford University, Folding@home now is based at Washington University in the St. Louis School of Medicine. The project is a partnership with many universities, institutions, and commercial companies, with funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among others.

Anyone can participate in the project by downloading the software. For a competitive edge, participants can join teams to see where they rank in powering this computational work.