Three Tritons change course in COVID-19
Acing the Test
When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, medical device company Lucira Health was already poised to make a quick pivot. For more than five years, engineers and scientists at Lucira had been perfecting a small, handheld device that would test for seasonal influenza from home. Naturally, the team quickly changed course to develop a test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“Fortunately, the Lucira test platform is easily adapted to new assays, or tests,” says Erik Engelson ’82, MS ’84, president and CEO of Lucira Health. “The decision to prioritize the COVID-19 test was an easy one.”
By November 2020, Lucira had developed the first at-home COVID-19 test kit to earn FDA approval. Strong clinical data that the test was effective was key to achieving this approval, but the Lucira team also had consumer-centric goals. The test had to be intuitive and straightforward enough for anyone to do on their own at home. “A significant effort went into creating easy-to-understand instructions along with a simple-to-use test,” says Engelson.
On the surface, the test is just that—the taker self-collects a nasal sample with a swab then swirls it in a vial that is then placed into the test unit. In 30 minutes or less, the results can be read directly from the unit’s light-up display. Behind the scenes and science, however, the device is a single-use miniature laboratory, a molecular test that uses a real-time loop-mediated amplification reaction, providing accuracy similar to that of PCR tests that are run in high-complexity central labs.
“I give the technical team huge kudos for the work they did in realizing the vision of transforming a central lab molecular diagnostic that runs on large machines to a tiny, fully disposable handheld device,” says Engelson.
The Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kits are now available for online sale to licensed U.S. healthcare providers. Learn more at lucirahealth.com
Doing a 180°
For Jack Craig ’20, developing an electronic skateboard company while still a student at UC San Diego gave him the know-how and international connections to put to use when COVID-19 struck.
During the initial spread and winter surge of the virus, hospitals struggled to keep up with hard-to-find products, such as nitrile gloves, gowns and masks. The high demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE, made conditions ripe for a “wild west” where the highest bidder took all and left others struggling to find supplies. But Craig and other recent college grads sought to change the game and refine PPE procurement with the start of Pandemic Relief Supply (PRS).
PRS is primarily a software and logistics company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze U.S. import data and determine what’s coming in and where it’s located most consistently. That data is then added to a custom inventory management system, which PRS reps use to match the best product and supplier for each customer.
“Before the pandemic began, our group had the idea for software that could disrupt the supply chain and provide greater transparency to the marketplace,” Craig says. “COVID-19 gave us a unique opportunity to test it out on a high-demand commodity like PPE and also help provide safety for workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. We even donate 70 percent of our profits to charity, like healthcare clinics and homeless shelters.”
What started as a team of six working from a home in Los Angeles has since grown to 12 core members, eight software developers and 30 sales reps nationwide. The team also recently added two more Tritons: cognitive science grad Ariana Zormeier ’20 and computer science student Erik Follette ’21, both from Muir College.
“As much as we’re motivated to make meaningful difference during the pandemic,” says Craig, “we hope the need for PPE will subside, along with the virus itself. At that point, we’d like to expand into other areas of industry.”
Kicking the Virus
And for recent medical school graduate Rachel Buehler Van Hollebeke, MD ’19, a pivot has been part of her long game from the start.
Van Hollebeke spent eight years as a defender on the United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT), but the Olympic gold medalist always had her sights set on a career in medicine. Having earned her degree from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine in 2019, she’s now on the frontlines of COVID-19 as a doctor in residence at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, Calif.
Medicine and healthcare has a long history in Van Hollebeke’s family. Her father was a cardiothoracic surgeon for four decades, and her grandfather and great-grandfather were general practitioners. Even her younger sister, Anna, also completed her medical studies at UC San Diego in 2020.
While a career in medicine was always the plan, Van Hollebeke deferred her admission to UC San Diego’s School of Medicine four times while playing soccer professionally with USWNT, where she took home gold medals at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics.
Van Hollebeke arrived at Scripps Mercy Hospital just months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. These days, she works 12-hour shifts in the part of San Diego County hit hardest by the coronavirus. “It’s very prevalent in the community for sure, and it’s affected many of my patients, whether they’ve been sick or have family members who have been sick or passed away,” she told Good Morning America in December.
Van Hollebeke (then Buehler) earned the nickname “The Buehldozer” for her tenacious style on the soccer field. Today, she is “Dr. Dozer,” bringing the same energy and dedication to her patients. “I think [the pandemic] is challenging, but at the same time, it has reaffirmed my passion for medicine.”