Bioengineering professor Aaron Timperman awarded NIH funding for COVID-19 research


Huan Song

Bioengineering professor Aaron Timperman has received an award from the National Institute of Health for his research, "A Microfluidic System Coupling Amplified Nanofluidic Virion Purification and Mass Spectrometry for Detection of SARS-CoV-2." 

Bioengineering faculty members at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been actively involved in COVID-19 research since the start of the pandemic working on modeling the disease, designing an emergency ventilator, procuring PPE and exploring testing methods. This research project is highly complementary to existing testing techniques and meets an urgent need for new methods and alternative techniques for viral detection in response to the pandemic. 

One of the challenges of many current RNA-based tests is the ability to get quantitative data about the infection beyond just a positive or negative result. This novel testing approach enables researchers to mine the rich information that is contained in the protein structures of the virus. "For example, it's very difficult to quantify the viral load and that's a key piece of the information that we are missing right now," said Timperman. Viral load refers to the total amount of the virus within a body. It can provide many critical details on the disease including at which stage of infection a person may be experiencing. 

Additionally, viral RNA may be present in a host long after the inflection has subsided. "We hope to develop a test that can better tell us when the infection has actually cleared," said Timperman. Viral proteins are integral to a virus' functions and these proteins can lose their activity under different circumstances. This new test would be able to shed insight into the lifetime of viral activity, detect mutated strains and emergent viruses.  "In the middle of a pandemic, this means maybe sending people home from the hospital more quickly to free up capacity for those with the greatest need."

Timperman is an expert in developing microfluidic and nanofluidic systems for improved proteome analysis and point of care diagnostic devices. "This is a needle in a haystack problem where the haystack is all the human proteins and we are looking for viral proteins," he said. "What we are trying to do is the upstream purification of the virus and then use mass spectrometry to pick out the proteins that come from the virus." 

Another advantage of using microfluidic and nanofluidic systems is their unique ability to handle small samples without losing valuable components. This research project aims to achieve the best detection limits for diagnostic testing and gain the greatest percentage of the viral proteome which will naturally be greater for patients with higher viral loads. Future applications for using the structural information contained in the proteins have the potential to revolutionize viral diagnostics in both the short-term and long-term.

Leyi Wang, a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a collaborator on this project.  "Leyi is a virology expert with extensive experience with viral testing so it's great to have him on the team," said Timperman.