TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Researchers in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are working to produce much-needed hand sanitizer for health care workers in Southern Arizona hospitals.
“With the goal of keeping our laboratory personnel safe, and also to do our part in ‘flattening the curve,’ we rapidly scaled down our ongoing research projects on bacterial infectious diseases,” said Gayatri Vedantam, an associate professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences and a BIO5 Institute member. “At the same time, our entire group came to the realization that stepping back was not aligned with what we do as scientists.”
“We decided to focus on the most immediate way we could help with the COVID-19 response. We realized that the hospital workers on the forefront needed things that would keep them safe – masks, gowns and hand sanitizers – more immediately than any kind of research we could do at this moment,” said VK Viswanathan, also an associate professor in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Science and a BIO5 Institute member.
Vedantam and Viswanathan study bacteria that causes infections in humans and agriculturally important animals. They've done surveillance studies to determine what bacterial pathogens are present in patients in local hospitals, and laboratory studies to understand at the molecular level how these organisms cause disease. They've also worked to develop diagnostic methods and non-antibiotic medicines for bacterial infections.
Although they have scaled back their own research to meet community needs, Vedantam and Viswanathan's laboratory personnel enthusiastically jumped in to lend support.
"Once we suggested the idea, they just ran with it and used the critical thinking skills that we emphasize all the time in our research group," Viswanathan said.
To prepare the hand sanitizer, they followed World Health Organization recommended guidelines, using ingredients available in their respective laboratories. The team took extra precautions to wear protective gear and prepare the product under sterile conditions to further mitigate risks for laboratory personnel and to develop an end product of the highest quality.
Vedantam and Viswanathan were joined by research scientist Jennifer Roxas; research specialists Shylaja Ramamurthy and Rachel Claus-Walker; graduate students Anusha Harishankar, Farhan Anwar and Shobitha Jillela; and undergraduate researchers Alison Williams and Kayley Manuel.
Their colleagues Sadhana Ravishankar, Kerry Cooper, Michael Riggs and Deborah Schaefer also jumped in to support the effort by providing additional supplies.
“Our faculty’s dedication to ensuring the resilience and health of our communities, people, environment and economies is exemplary,” said Shane Burgess, UArizona vice president of agriculture, life and veterinary sciences and Cooperative Extension. “Dr. Vedantam and Dr. Viswanathan have shown selfless commitment addressing an urgent need as we all work to ‘flatten the curve’ during this crisis.”
The group has had specific requests from health care facilities across Southern Arizona, including the Carondolet Health Network, Marana Hospital and UArizona Campus Health. While the researchers have limited capacity and resources for preparing hand sanitizer, they are doing their best to meet incoming requests.
“Our first priority is to help health care workers. They are at very high risk, and they are critical for our efforts to combat this outbreak,” Vedantam said. “At some point soon, we anticipate the need for ingredients. Immediately, we already have a shortage of plastic, flip-top, travel-size bottles and small plastic spray bottles; the ability to get them in bulk would be beneficial.”