Institute & Centres
As Director of the Medical Device Research Institute at Flinders University, she knew the University was well placed to address this challenge, given its advanced facilities and world-class cross-disciplinary personnel.
“We have the right people, expertise and resources, so we made logical connections and brought together a team able to tackle problems head-on and provide a vital service to the community,” says Professor Reynolds. This team brought together expertise from engineering, physiology, chemistry, materials science and environmental health.
With the support of the South Australian Government, and in collaboration with colleagues from UniSA, the team established the South Australian Mask Testing Facility. The new facility provides domestic industry with an opportunity to meet consumer demand in a severely disrupted market due to COVID-19-affected global trade and transport logistics. The first request came from local company Detmold, which was establishing new manufacturing capability tests for medical respirators and surgical face masks in South Australia.
“Until the pandemic, much of the testing for these items had been done outside of Australia. With increased demand resulting from COVID-19, the time taken for these tests to be run overseas was growing. Our facility has provided a sovereign capacity to conduct the testing here, assisting both domestic manufacturers and importers,” says Professor Reynolds.
With additional support from Flinders Foundation, Flinders has been able to expand the facility’s function to include textile testing, which allows surgical gown manufacturers to test resistance to bacteria, viruses and fluids, and extends the nation’s capabilities for testing of PPE.
However, Professor Reynolds wasn’t satisfied with merely measuring items against existing standards. The uncharted frontier of COVID-19 risk management demands increased rigour and expanded investigation. It also requires thinking differently about problems to achieve better outcomes. She is urging Flinders’ research teams to reach higher.
“Once the new testing facilities were activated, it opened up new research questions. Testing the effectiveness of materials used in face masks is one important matter, but what about leaks around the edges of masks? That’s where aerosol penetration can occur. What value is a test that shows a fabric effectively filters out 95% of coughed or sneezed aerosol delivery, when the mask design allows 50% leak around its edges?
“We began to ask whether the standards that underpin existing tests are actually asking the right questions. A big part of our current activity is establishing new, improved regimes that are underpinned by research.”
This set Flinders researchers on innovative paths. Associate Professor Kirstin Ross is an environmental health researcher who was testing the efficacy of surgical masks against aerosolised virus particles when she noticed a student fashion designer creating matched face mask and lingerie sets. “I scoffed, thinking it wouldn’t work – but then I had to admit that I just didn’t know,” says Associate Professor Ross. “I already had the testing apparatus in place, so I thought I’d test these fashionable cotton masks to measure their protective capabilities. This is exactly the type of simple scientific question that the public needs answered. And to my surprise, these masks were very effective.”
The study that resulted from these tests, published in Pathogens journal, showed that commonly available fabric masks are very effective in reducing the number of aerosolised viruses a wearer could be exposed to. The study found that even the poorest performing mask filtered at least 63% of virus numbers in aerosols typical of those produced by coughing and small enough to be inhaled.
Professor Karen Reynolds
Dr Harriet Whiley
A Flinders University research trial is also underway to test personalised 3D-printed face mask seals that are moulded to fit the faces of individual healthcare workers. These are designed to reduce the potential for any infection caused by ill-fitting masks when treating COVID-19 and during other high-risk procedures.
Thinking outside of the original research brief, Professor Reynolds is promoting wider applications for innovations driven originally by the COVID-19 response. “We tend to think of face masks at this time as a COVID-19 protective measure, but there is much broader need for respiratory protection equipment. This has been highlighted by the terrible bushfires of recent years, the intense smoke they have generated and firefighting measures that people have been forced to take.”
This research is among a raft of 35 COVID-19 related projects active across Flinders University’s six Colleges, some in collaboration with external partners. They encompass a myriad of societal aspects, recognising that the social implications of COVID-19 are broad reaching, greatly affecting the general community and not just those afflicted by the disease.
Conversations about new collaborations with industry continue. Professor Reynolds says more than 100 businesses and organisations from around Australia have contacted her team to explore COVID-related assistance, helping industrial designers, manufacturers and importers with vital research, testing and product development.
As part of this expanding network, Professor Reynolds has also led the Medical Device Partnering Program in developing Australia’s first dedicated online Capability Directory for the medical device sector. With more than 2600 Australian organisations already listed in the directory, it aims to boost innovation and development of cutting-edge medical devices and technologies across the country – and it places Flinders in a pivotal position at the centre of this activity.
“Our goal is to build on the current research and manufacturing capability across the nation and develop Australia’s position as a global leader in the growing medical devices market,” says Professor Reynolds. Through these initiatives, Flinders is underlining its role in the medical device sector and has highlighted the important capabilities within the university.”
From Left to Right: Dr Harriet Whiley, Associate Professor Kirstin Ross
Article first published on 13 November 2020
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