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23 April, 2020
Zamorano’s Class 2014 donates biosecurity equipment to doctors and nurses
9 September, 2020

Early detection of COVID-19: A Zamorano graduate’s innovative thinking launches a project in Panama

A pillar of the whole-person approach to education at Zamorano includes encouraging students to embrace a commitment to addressing societal needs.  A shining example of this presented itself to us recently when we learned of the work of Ediner Fuentes Campos, Class 2016. 

Ediner is leading Panama´s STEMO project, a molecular detection system and hardware for a preliminary diagnosis “in situ” of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). The purpose of this project is to multiply rapid tests to provide results within 45 minutes to one hour in rural, remote or densely populated areas around the country.

Ediner shared that his desire and chosen method to contribute to Panama and other countries in the region during this pandemic stems directly from the scientific and technical knowledge he received at Zamorano. His Zamorano education prepared him to think outside the box and propose alternatives and new tools to help meet the needs of people in the face of  this worldwide pandemic. “Zamorano instilled in me discipline, character and passion to face this type of challenge with functional and innovative solutions adapted to the present situation. These capacities, linked to high resilience and adaptation to changes can be some of the best tools Zamorano taught me”, he enthusiastically explained.

Ediner’s project was introduced in a quick response announcement  in Panama by the Science and Technology National Organization (SENACYT) whose purpose was to support research initiatives, innovation and interdisciplinary developments to address challenges associated with the pandemic. The organization received 330 research projects from Panamanian entrepreneurs, of which 32 were chosen, Ediner’s STEMO being one of them.

“Working to solve society’s challenges and working multidisciplinarily, as well as being a graduate from the Environment and Development department, these are some of the reasons why our work has been recognized by SENACYT. Having professionals and experts in all areas including biotechnology and mechatronics, biology, molecular biology, and in my case, Environmental Engineering and Microbiology, was essential to the whole design process”, he added

Under the leadership of this Zamorano graduate, the STEMO proposal presents a system for screening a SARS-CoV-2 diagnosis, based on detection of a patient’s viral ARN using a testing sample (through nasopharyngeal or oralpharyngeal swabbing), called RT-LAMP (Reverse Transcription Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification). This AND/ARN amplified technique has some advantages over the PCR (polymerase reaction change).  For example, test-to-result time (qPCR) is quicker.  It is also less expensive, more sensitive, specific and isothermal, meaning it does not require specialized instruments.

In Panama, in collaboration with other health entities, the project is being managed by Ing. Fuentes with the help of 15 students and scientists from Panama.  One possible outcome could be a considerably lower timeline from test to results than in the PCR model.  A second advantage could be a reduction in cost from the current value of USD$23 per sample, to USD$5 or USD$7.  These cost savings could then  be used to focus on the follow-up for positive cases.

Another possible outcome is a decrease in results timing. “The qPCR has a duration between 2 to 4 hours which will increase the further cases are from testing centers. In Panama there are locales where the samples could take between 6 and 10 hours to be transported to the nearest testing site. STEMO could reduce the waiting time by up to 75% since the entire STEMO testing system takes between 45 minutes and an hour.  Considering that it would be used in remote areas, it would provide a faster response”, he pointed out.

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According to Ing. Fuentes, with approval, this initiative could deliver 200 molecular detection kits, each including the hardware and the necessary reagents to do 200 samples per kit in a 7 month period. This means that by the end of the project, 40,000 preliminary detection samples could be distributed across the country.

STEMO could be used as screening protocol along a country’s borders and points of entry, thanks to the short test-to-result timeline and the simplicity of technically training its administrators. It would be appropriate for use at land borders, airports, and seaports, as well as in workplaces, schools, and any areas where people assemble for extended periods of time. The system could be used to detect acute cases.  It includes quick serologic samples of LqG and IgM which can determine cases of zero prevalence. This would be useful in helping to identify individuals who have developed immunity after succumbing to the disease, even in asymptomatic cases.

According to the WHO, the combination of identification of zeroprevalence and (positive) virus using virus molecular detection processes like STEMO or other amplification techniques such as PCR will be the future of virus detection.   Quicker turn-around times and more easily accessible PCR techniques like STEMO offers provide the essential detection and quick diagnosis which will enable people to go back to work more quickly. This way, health systems will make better and more accurate decisions for public health protection by streamlining the release of negative-testing individuals”, said Fuentes

Scientific- technologic startup base

This project idea, lead by a Zamorano graduate, helps to equip the national and regional health communities with robust equipment to be used in the detection of SARS-CoV-2, and other illnesses. Challenges in Central America are significant due to the high incidence of the virus which affects the respiratory system in a cyclic way related to the region’s rainy season.

“It is important for the team that the countries in the region understand the need to invest in science, technology and innovation, with large enough budgets so that proposals like STEMO continue to be financed and offer alternatives during times when international markets can´t keep up and costs rise”, added Fuentes.

Once the proposal is completed, the idea is to generate the necessary conditions to establish the project as a scientific, technologically-based start-up that provides a specialized service to health institutions in Panama and the region.  The goal of the start-up is to develop and innovate within the health sector the necessities to deal with future pandemics.

The most important result for Fuentes will be the healthcare worker’s technical training; providing the “know how”, imprinting the scientific and technical knowledge provided by this entrepreneurial venture. Fuentes credits Zamorano whose training inspires in its graduates a commitment to society;  a life of skills based on an innovative approach, where each situation can be adapted through learning-by-doing that is focused on feeding the world and the transfer of knowledge, seeking generational renewal and the creation of resilient and vanguard answers to the region’s most pressing questions.

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