WRAIR vaccine research means air time for lab equipment supplier

Staff at a Sunnyvale-based lab equipment supplier had no idea the company’s products were being used in federal coronavirus research until they saw it on the news. But that sighting has inspired the company to explore partnerships with other organizations doing COVID-19 research.

NBC News aired a March 21 segment about the work being done at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. As reporter Gabe Gutierrez chats with researchers at the Maryland facility, a Crystal Gryphon from Art Robbins Instruments (ARI) can be seen briefly in the background.

The Crystal Gryphon is a small, fast and affordable option for setting up crystallography plates. A dedicated syringe based LCP head dispenses the protein, and a 96 head dispenses the buffer solutions. The Gryphon is used along with ARI’s Scorpion Liquid Handling Work Station in the X-ray crystallography process, where proteins are isolated and crystalized for use in creating images of the virus. The Scorpion sets up a place to grow the crystals, while the Gryphon lets researchers experiment with solutions that draw liquid out of protein samples so they crystalize.

WRAIR researchers crystalize portions of the coronavirus, then send them to Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, where they’re bombarded with X-rays. The scattering of X-rays by the crystal can be measured to determine the virus’s atomic structure. The spikes covering the outside of the spherical virus penetrate cells in the human body and cause infections; WRAIR scientists are using images of these spikes to glean information that helps develop a vaccine.

ARI general manager David Wright says the company is reaching out to other organizations doing coronavirus research to see if the company’s products are needed. Meanwhile, he says, the company's employees are happy knowing its products are being used to help stop the virus from spreading.

“Everyone is thrilled to see that,” Wright said. “It’s a big energy boost to see our stuff successfully used.”

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