Texas Tech University

Heppert: COVID-19 Created Opportunities For Greater Collaboration

Glenys Young

June 25, 2020

Texas Tech University research chief discusses PPE innovation on statewide panel.

If there is one good thing to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, it's that researchers at Texas Tech University and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) have forged new working relationships that will benefit the larger West Texas community going forward.

That is the major takeaway for Joseph A. Heppert, vice president for research and innovation at Texas Tech, who was a featured panelist for The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas' (TAMEST) webinar "COVID-19: Manufacturing and Sterilizing Personal Protective Equipment" on Thursday (June 25).


During the event, scientists, researchers and hospital administrators shared the latest developments in respiratory protection, reports from the front lines on the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) and examples of innovative engineering in response to the pandemic.

Heppert focused his comments on the work of the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium.

"This was a real grassroots effort from individuals who recognized that, in many West Texas communities, the question was not even how we much could reuse and repurpose PPE, it was a serious lack of adequate amounts of PPE given the levels of COVID-19 we were facing," Heppert said. "There was a recognition of the real need for other types of PPE that would help shield health care providers in circumstances where they didn't have adequate PPE."

Luckily, between faculty members at Texas Tech and the TTUHSC – including Al Sacco Jr., dean of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering; Robert Duncan, professor and President's Distinguished Chair in physics; Honors College associate dean Aliza Wong; and TTUHSC's Simon Williams, a professor of medical education and cell biology & biochemistry and associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine – there was a wealth of knowledge and experience in 3D printing.

"The concept of a consortium coming together was sort of a natural outcome," Heppert said.

Out of that group came new face mask templates with replaceable filters, 3D-printed face shields for health care providers, intubation chambers to protect health care workers during highly invasive medical procedures, replacement parts for ventilators and even ear savers, which help prevent the discomfort that often accompanies PPE wear. More than 7,400 face shields, more than 240 intubation chambers and nearly 8,000 ear savers have now been delivered to roughly 200 facilities in need throughout West Texas.

Another Texas Tech/TTUHSC group found a way to sterilize large amounts of PPE, a service it offered to regional health care facilities, businesses like dental clinics and emergency responders. To date, it has decontaminated more than 3,800 items, including N-95 and surgical masks.

This group even helped with testing for the virus. Combined, the Texas Tech/TTUHSC COVID-19 Testing Team and Harvinder Gill, the Whitacre Endowed Chair of Science and Engineering, have provided more than 40,000 vials of viral transport medium to public health departments, hospitals, clinics and the state of Texas so they can safely package and transport samples for testing. In addition, The Institute of Environmental and Human Health's Biological Threat Research Laboratory has tested and reported the results of COVID-19 testing for more than 6,000 samples.

"It was so fortunate this started as a grassroots effort, because it brought in people from the TTUHSC who had connections with rural communities' health care facilities and people who needed PPE," Heppert said. "If it had been only the Texas Tech campus, we never would have had those connections."

Now that those collaborative working relationships have been established between faculty at both universities, they will endure beyond the current pandemic.

"If there is one great thing to come out of this entire experience, it is that it has brought the capabilities of our institutions, in terms of research interests and in opportunities for public service, much closer together," Heppert said, "and that has been strongly supported by both Presidents Lawrence Schovanec and Lori Rice-Spearman.

"We've had a strong push on advance manufacturing and additive manufacturing for some time. It's exciting to expand that from traditional materials and advanced materials, mainly with applications in defense-type technologies, to look at opportunities to do advance manufacturing and just-in-time manufacturing for health care. I look forward to this as the beginning of a lot more research collaboration."