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[Article series] The experts behind Luxembourg's COVID-19 fight

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Published on Friday, 22 May 2020

Anupam Sengupta, Professor within the Department of Physics and Materials Science at the University of Luxembourg, is principal investigator of the COVID-19 research project "V-SIDE: Virus-Surface Interactions In Dynamic Environments”.

In this project, Prof. Anupam Sengupta will use a cross-disciplinary approach to study how the properties of physical surfaces, in addition to environmental factors like temperature and humidity, shape the stability and viability virus species. The project is funded by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), the Department of Physics and Materials Science (DPhyMS) and a private donor.

1)        Could you tell us more about your background and expertise?

I joined the University of Luxembourg in May 2018 as an FNR ATTRACT Fellow to head the Physics of Living Matter Group, interfacing research activities between the Department of Physics and Materials Science (DPhyMS), the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH). Using a cross-disciplinary approach, my group studies biological processes and systems, specifically the behaviour and response of microorganisms to changes in their environment. We apply concepts and principles from physics, micro- and molecular biology, fluid mechanics and materials sciences to understand how living organisms adjust or adapt to changes in their environment. This fundamental question can have far-reaching implications, for instance in predicting the future of ecosystems under current climatic shifts, or the status of human health due to changing food habits or lifestyles.


2)        How is your expertise relevant in the current COVID context?

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, preliminary studies have reported that the pre-infection stability and viability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is influenced by the nature of the contaminated surfaces. For instance, SARS-CoV-2 virus on plastic and stainless steel surfaces were viable for up to 7 days, whereas on printed paper and copper, this timescale was much shorter (about 4 hours). This viability-timescale could have considerable implication on the transmission of the virus, especially through casual surface contacts. Yet we do not know which biophysical principles underpin the virus-surface interactions. V-SIDE is a timely project that aims to fill this fundamental gap, enabling us to link the biophysical mechanisms to the surface-specific viability-timescales.

With the biophysics expertise in my team, we have recently taken the first steps to tease the virus-surface-environment nexus apart, to uncover how surface properties shape the stability and viability of viral particles. The key questions we are working on are: (i) Why and how do surface properties influence the viability of virus on contaminated surfaces; (ii) How do surface properties, in combination with environmental parameters, determine the viral viability under realistic settings; and (iii) Can we use this unprecedented, yet fundamental knowledge to innovate anti-viral solutions in a scalable and facile manner, that could equip us better not just against COVID-19, but also against recurring novel viral pandemics. Answering these questions could fundamentally change our approach to tackle this current, and future viral pandemics. 

3)        What is your specific role in ongoing COVID projects?

From a biophysical standpoint, the surface-specific viability of SARS-CoV-2 virus should depend on the physical interactions between the envelope of SAR-CoV-2 virus, the physico-chemical properties of the contaminated surface, and local environmental variables like temperature, humidity and pH. V-SIDE’s fundamental goal is to understand how surface properties, under a given environmental setting, impact the structural stability of the virus’ envelope. In doing so, we will simultaneously get a mechanistic insight into the biophysical factors that regulate virus’ ability to infect host cells. Using non-pathogenic mutants and surrogates of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we will uncover the surface properties that determine the nature and strength of interactions with viruses. Furthermore, the material forming ‘spikes’ of the coronavirus (Spike proteins) will be used to test the surface-specific interactions, and how these interactions change as a function of the environmental parameters.


To achieve this goal in a relevant yet rapid manner, we have proposed an experimental approach that is capable of capturing the relevant physico-chemical interactions using an ELISA-assay, along with high-resolution visualisation platform, to screen candidate surfaces for anti-(SARS-CoV-2) properties. Micro-fabrication and microfluidics will be vital techniques that will allow us to create realistic and relevant experimental conditions under which the virus-surface interactions will be studied. To extract a comprehensive, and statistically reliable data, we will combine high resolution imaging (using Atomic Force and Scanning Electron Microscopy techniques) and spectroscopic methods to assess the chemical signatures of the surfaces. The experimental data will be used to develop phenomenological models to capture the virus-surface interactions, with a long-term goal of incorporating machine learning methods that will identify surface-specific viabilities of various virus species. 

4)        Could you tell us more about your collaborators?

V-SIDE fits within the Physics Meets Biology efforts, under the umbrella initiative Complex Living Systems. Quite naturally, this will lead to interdisciplinary collaborative activities with colleagues at the LCSB, who are already involved in a number of ongoing projects under FNR’s COVID-19 initiative. Furthermore, the project anticipates collaborations with colleagues at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and LIH once the first results from our pilot studies are out. Beyond Luxembourg, I am in regular touch with colleagues across and Europe and elsewhere, identifying research synergies that could be taken up during the second phase of the V-SIDE project.