MSU doc races to create a faster COVID-19 test

By: - April 6, 2020 5:52 am

Dr. Brett Etchebarne at his lab at Michigan State University | Anna Liz Nichols

As Michigan has risen to being third in the nation for most COVID-19 cases, a Michigan State University doctor is developing a test for the virus that could have results in 15 minutes. 

Across the state, many residents with symptoms have said they can’t get a test due to a shortage. With the exception of those able to get into a handful of testing sites in Detroit, most people don’t receive results for days after.

Dr. Brett Etchebarne is looking to change that.

Dr. Brett Etchebarne’s lab at Michigan State University | Anna Liz Nichols

The test would allow multiple people to be sampled at the same time, speeding up the process and getting patients results faster. Because many people with COVID-19 feel fine or have mild symptoms, it’s important to have test results before they leave a health care facility, Etchbarne said.

“At this current juncture, there’s such a backlog. And with the time required to get the answer, it’s not prudent to be able to test everyone. You need to conserve your resources for testing,” Etchebarne said. “We don’t know when we’re going to get these results  — whereas if we had it at the point of care in the [emergency room] — if I I was able to do all the patients I’ve seen in the night — we do seem to have here the ability to do them in large quantities, as needed, to unburden this current load.”

He runs the Etchebarne laboratory at MSU, which primarily focuses on identifying and treating sepsis. These days, Etchebarne splits his time in between overnight shifts in the ER at Sparrow and McLaren Hospital and his work developing a faster COVID-19 test.

“It’s not easy to juggle the work and everything, but at the same time, a lot of other doctors are busy doing stuff, too, so I’ve got to do my part,” Etchebarne. “I think this is why you go into emergency medicine to begin with. I always thought to myself, if the bad thing comes to town, then I would be the one taking care of it. So I think that’s part of why you sign up for it in the first place.”

Before taking on COVID-19, Etchbarne’s team at the MSU Institute for Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering had already been developing a rapid pathogen identification test for patients who displayed symptoms of infections like pneumonia. 

Once an analysis on the genetic code of COVID-19 was released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Etchebarne reverse engineered his work with respiratory pathogens to test for COVID-19.

Although Etchebarne said the process for developing his COVID-19 test has quickly progressed, it could be some time until a test could hit the market. He’s been in contact with Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) labs all over to perform tests to then seek Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval. But labs are overworked during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, with this sort of crisis, a system that’s already overburdened nearly at all times by specimens is now super-extra overburdened with specimens that are of new nature,” Etchebarne said. “It’s difficult for me to edge a new product into these places.”

Health care professionals and first responders across the country are on the front lines of this global pandemic. With the growing number of cases and shortages in personal protective equipment, many workers face the reality that they, too, could become sick.

That’s something driving Etchebarne’s work.

“I don’t know if I’ll stay healthy the whole time,” he said, “so I think I should work while I can work.” 

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Anna Liz Nichols
Anna Liz Nichols

Anna Liz Nichols is a former Michigan Advance intern. She is a Michigan State University graduate who has reported for several publications, including MLive and Michigan State University’s award-winning student paper, the State News, where she covered the many tendrils of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.