COVID-19 research facility in Brookhaven aims to develop better tests

Jared O’Neal, clinical studies director of RADx research at Emory University, (right) leads a tour of the new COVID-19 test research facility in Brookhaven on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. He’s joined by Dr. Greg Martin, co-director of the research center. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Jared O’Neal, clinical studies director of RADx research at Emory University, (right) leads a tour of the new COVID-19 test research facility in Brookhaven on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. He’s joined by Dr. Greg Martin, co-director of the research center. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The RADx team could be evaluating several tests at the same time

Georgia researchers are looking to put COVID-19 tests to the test.

Several metro Atlanta healthcare institutions partnered to open a research center in Brookhaven on Wednesday with the goal of improving rapid COVID tests — both for at-home use and by local physicians.

The doctors in charge of the program hope false test results — either from user error or outdated technology — will become a thing of the past. The facility sees Atlanta leading the charge to improve existing tests, detect new variants and make them easier to use for non-medical professionals.

“Even if something works and it’s intended to be used in someone’s home, can my mom use it? Can a disabled person use it,” said Dr. Wilbur Lam, a co-director of the new research center and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine and Georgia Tech. “Those are all questions that need to be answered.”

Located at 59 Executive Park, the research center is the result of the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program, a federal effort to quickly develop accurate testing methods. If you’ve taken a rapid test or an at-home test for COVID, it was the result of research that was funded, supported and developed through this program, Lam said.

The Brookhaven center is the first place in the Atlanta area where you can get a PCR test — often seen as the gold standard of testing due to its high accuracy — while also getting one of the RADx research team’s experimental rapid tests. The goal is for both test results to be the same.

RADx is funded by the National Institutes of Health, and the new facility is a partnership between Emory University, Georgia Tech and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

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Dr. Lucky Jain, the chief academic officer at Children’s Healthcare, said improving the methods for detecting infection in children is critical and could involve out-of-the-box solutions. While current at-home tests involve nose swabs — a sometime painful experience — less invasive testing measures are in the works, such as oral swabs or saliva examinations.

The facility will act like any other large testing site, featuring a drive-thru for non-contact examinations while also accepting in-person testing. Dr. Greg Martin, a co-director of the research center and an Emory University School of Medicine professor, said the facility offers testing to anyone who is symptomatic for COVID, and they’ll get a $50 gift card for helping participate in their market research.

“What will happen here is really what you would see at every other COVID test site plus the opportunity to do research and see if something novel or different can help develop or validate new tests for the country,” he said.

The RADx team could be evaluating several tests at the same time, each of which are looking at different variables. Some might focus on different coronavirus variants, while others could be self-administered or given by a physician. At least 50 samples are needed to determine whether a test is a dud or has further potential.

“One of the ways is to quickly vet and determine which tests might have an inkling of success, move those forward and pour more resources into it,” Lam said. A promising test could become federally-authorized and hit market shelves after six to eight weeks of development.

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The research center is replacing Emory’s current orthopedics and spine center, which will move to the company’s new muscoskeletal institute across the street. With RADx having a dedicated space, the research team plans to expand at-home testing research to other diseases and viruses when COVID is less of an immediate threat.

“Now we move into the endemic phase, this won’t stop,” Dr. Robert Nobles, vice president of research administration at Emory University, said. “There will always be viruses that need testing.”

For more information on the research center or to schedule an appointment, visit https://is.gd/RADxCovidScheduler.

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