Pulaski student developing COVID-19/flu test

Project at Milwaukee School of Engineering expected to lead to over-the-counter test
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

A cough coming from someone’s mouth these days have many fearing that person could have the coronavirus and could be spreading it to others.

However, at this time of year, influenza and colds are also spreading throughout communities and making people sick. So how do you tell the difference?

Benjamin Bruckert, of Pulaski, is working on something with a team of students at the Milwaukee School of Engineering that they hope will be able to inform people whether they have COVID-19 or the flu. The over-the-counter test is still in the experimental phase, but it could provide results for those who don’t want to wait for an appointment with a doctor or other health care provider.

“The idea stems from our senior design classes,” said Bruckert, a senior pursuing a degree in biomolecular engineering. “We’re given a problem or a project idea, and then we kind of get to take that and run with it. The project idea that was given to us was the point-of-care tests, which are at-home tests, but we got to decide what virus or bacteria to do with that one, so we chose COVID-19 and influenza just because of the similarities between the symptoms.”

There were a variety of other illnesses and diseases that Bruckert and his team, dubbed Team Argus, could have pursued, but with the coronavirus pandemic about to go into its third year, it made sense for the team to look at it and the flu because they both greatly affect public health.

“We thought we could have the greatest impact with those two viruses,” Bruckert said.

Common symptoms between the two viruses are fever, sore throat and coughing. Wisconsin typically experiences heavy bouts of the flu virus spreading between November and April, so with the flu season hitting as COVID-19 continues to spread — now with the omicron variant dominating — it can be difficult to determine which virus has invaded.

“Our hope is to help people realize whether they have the flu or COVID-19 so they can get in contact with their doctor and come up with a plan to know what to do in terms of isolation and treatment options,” Bruckert said.

The laboratory testing is in the preliminary phase, according to Bruckert. The last three months have been spent on research into the proteins and receptors for the two viruses, and that is helping Team Argus to come up with a design for the test that would be very similar to at-home pregnancy tests. The COVID-19/influenza test is saliva-based, so users would spit into a vial, which would then be transferred to test strips.

“When we enter the lab this (next) quarter, we’re going to have to do a lot of testing to make sure there’s no cross-reactivity between the two diseases — no positives for COVID-19 if influenza is present and vice versa,” Bruckert said. “Also, if there’s a third disease, that needs to not produce any positive results (on the test).”

Bruckert and the team will be testing on lab-grade viruses and will not be in contact with people who are experiencing either COVID-19 or the flu. Creating viral solutions will be the best method for now, he said, to determine the test’s effectiveness.

Bruckert anticipates testing with people eventually but noted: “We’re not at that stage yet.”

Team Argus hopes to have a working prototype by the end of the school year in May, but the test could require an additional year, and a new team from the school’s junior class, to become a reality.

“Our hope is to start this project out and then the juniors — there’s a group of them — would take over the project,” Bruckert said.

Because testing and experiments can be costly, Team Argus set up a crowdfunding page through the school at https://together.msoe.edu/project/29125 and is hoping to raise about $2,500. Bruckert said that the team has raised over $1,000 in the two weeks since the page went live.

“I think it’s amazing, and it shows the backing of the public behind this idea,” Bruckert said. “I’m really excited to see that interest.”

Bruckert is excited about the impact that the over-the-counter test could have in the continuing pandemic.

“It feels like I have the ability to make a difference,” he said. “There’s no more prevalent issue going on right now in the world than COVID-19 and influenza. It feels really awesome to research this kind of stuff, and even if we aren’t able to fully market this product this year, we’re still able to get the ball rolling and pass it on to next year. It just feels nice to be able to start that process.”

Bruckert started his career path in biomedical engineering before COVID-19 even existed, so finding himself in a position to make a difference with something so big is something he didn’t expect.

“When I went into the biomolecular engineering program, my intentions were more toward the biotechnology side of things, so kind of getting into lab and running DNA experiments,” Bruckert said. “I totally did not see us taking a direction in terms of immunology and virus protection. It was kind of a surprise to me.”