Inside a UMass Lowell lab where companies race to unlock COVID-19

LOWELL, Mass. — Public health experts agree that the key to unlocking society, including businesses and schools, is broad testing.

Only then will we know just how widespread the coronavirus is and how best to stop its spread.

One building on the campus of UMass-Lowell is actually open. The workers inside are considered essential. It houses the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center, or M-2-D-2.

“It’s a space where we can help start-up companies working in life sciences get access to equipment, the technical expertise, the business expertise that they need to move forward,” University Provost Steve Tello explained.

For more than a decade, the program has been helping launch companies with cutting edge medical ideas.

Nuclease Probe Technologies is there working on rapid tests for all kinds of dangerous diseases.

"We can detect high impact pathogens that cause a lot of death, and diseases, with in five to 10 minutes,' said CEO Jim McNamara.

The company’s focus has now shifted to creating a rapid blood test for the coronavirus.

“For myself, I feel a certain obligation to do what we can, at my start-up, to try and address these needs,” said McNamara.

The need is great as public health experts say wide-scale testing is essential before life can return to anything close to normal.

"Testing is going to be such a big part of getting people back to work," said Bryan Buchholz, chairman of bio-medical engineering. "If we know who has the virus, and who doesn't have the virus, it makes it so much easier than if we don't."

M-2-D-2, which partners with UMass Medical School in Worcester, is one of five organizations now splitting a $1.5 billion federal grant under a program called “Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics.”

Also called RADx, this is an effort to get good ideas off the ground faster.

Versatope is another start-up working in M-2-D-2.

“We want to come up with a vaccine that will protect against not only the current pandemic strain, but future strains as well,” said CEO Chris Lochner.

Versatope is one of about 40 companies currently working out of the center right now. They’ve been developing a universal flu vaccine, but are now shifting gears. Lochner said it’s empowering to work with other professionals who share the same goal of responding to today’s emergency.

M-2-D-2 has also had a positive effect on the community, according to Tello.

“What we’ve been able to do is really extend the life science community around Boston-Cambridge up to Lowell,” the provost said.

In just the last year and a half, Tello says five companies that got their start at the center have expanded and moved into larger spaces in Lowell’s historic mills.

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RESOURCES:

- Massachusetts Coronavirus Information

- Boston Coronavirus Information

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