A University of North Texas chemistry professor and a Frisco tech company were hard at work to send a breathalyzer that could detect opioids and alcohol on the breath to market.
Then two big things happened.
The pandemic hit, and Congress broached the federal decriminalization of marijuana, voting on legislation last month.
UNT Chemistry professor Guido Verbeck and InspectIR Systems, a research, development and device company based in Frisco, did what so many other companies and educators have done over the past three years.
Fast forward to now, and the university’s research division and InspectIR Systems just got emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to use the breathalyzer to detect COVID-19 on the breath.
Within six months, a Denton County resident could be blowing into a tube of the breathalyzer to find out if they might have COVID-19, said Tim Wing, co-founder of InspectIR.
It is the only breathalyzer on the market authorized by the FDA to detect COVID-19.
UNT licensed the invention to InspectIR Systems for manufacturing and sales.
“Guido invented the breathalyzer,” said John Redmond, co-founder of InspectIR. “We co-developed the technology that allows us to collect breath and concentrate it in order to analyze it using that instrument to see COVID.”
The technology was originally set to be used to detect alcohol and opioids on the breath, but as Congress started drafting legislation to decriminalize marijuana the company and the professor wondered if their tech would have the same draw from law enforcement and medicine.
Verbeck said the question about whether the original tech — which was created to detect illegal amounts of opioids and THC — could be used for something else came up repeatedly in calls about the device.
“We’d gotten to the point where we were ready to release that as a product right when COVID hit,” he said. “So of course, the narrative for everybody who is on all the phone calls that were going on was that, ‘great opioids, THC, it’s wonderful. What about COVID?’ So, we had to do some tweaking and we changed the chemistry a little bit. And we were able to show that we could detect COVID with this device.”
One of the biggest game changers from a device that can detect COVID through the breath is the ability to skip nasal swabs needed for current COVID tests.
For some, the typical test — which requires a long cotton swab to be inserted high into each nostril — hurts, while others shake it off with nothing more than a sneezing fit.
How does the device work, exactly?
Verbeck explained that the technology mimics the carbon filter in your refrigerator.
“Carbon is very good at capturing organics and getting them out of your water,” Verbeck said. “So, think of it as exactly the same sort of process. We’ve sort of a carbon substrate — and it is a carbon substrate, but it’s got some extra things in it — that turns to the chemistry that you’re interested in looking at. So, when you’re in a disease state like COVID, your respiratory cells die. They go apoptotic. Which is just a fancy word for cell death.”
When those cells die, Verbeck said, small organic compounds are released that are unique to COVID.
“Those organic molecules are the ones that we’re capturing, and re-releasing back into the instruments,” Verbeck said. “So, that’s called pre-concentrating. So, we just take it, we concentrate onto the substrate like a carbon filter and then we evacuate it, heat it up and off comes the volatile organic compounds that we’re interested in identifying. So, it takes a small amount of air to detect these organic compounds.”
A future COVID screening could be as easy as visiting a participating testing center or clinic and puffing air into a tube.
“I think just about anyone will be able to entertain themselves on their phone for three minutes waiting for the results,” said Michael Rondelli, the associate vice president of Research Commercial Agreements at UNT, who takes over the bureaucratic part of what’s called “tech transfer.”
Rondelli, who had a career on Wall Street decided he wanted to go into a line of work that “would make the world a better place.” He found that his skills and expertise made him a natural fit to do the heavy lifting needed to take publicly-funded university research and share it with private players.
“Instead of having Guido step away from what he does best, and what he does best is the research and chemistry work that makes UNT a Tier 1 Research institution, that’s where I come in and do the work that can make this kind of enterprise take years,” Rondelli said. “It shouldn’t go without people’s notice that this is what makes a research institution a benefit.”
Redmond said there’s likely a raft of tech that North Texans use each day that grew out of tech transfers.
“I mean, this is something that universities do, right? They take the power of students and they create these public-private joint ventures with the entrepreneur,” he said. “Tim and myself, we leverage the expertise. So, someone like Professor Verbeck can go and create something really cool, and then you put it in the market. It’s not stuck in a university setting, right? You take some cool stuff out of academia, and you put it in the real world.”
Tim Wing, co-founder of InspectIR, said one of the company’s core beliefs is “that the only thing that matters is this moment in time.”
“What happened two days ago doesn’t matter,” Wing said. “What happened 24 hours ago doesn’t really matter. What matters is right now, and that’s whether it’s a COVID test, whether it’s a drug abuse test, whether it’s a flu test, whether it’s another upper respiratory infection test. That’s what allows us to be in fellowship, to be in groups [and] be in a crowd safely.”
Rondelli said that the FDA emergency authorization will put InspectIR (and UNT’s licensed technology) to work for public health for three to five years. The approval lets all the players gather feedback and possibly improve the device. With a disease like COVID, faster and more accurate screening can actually slow the spread. And with more COVID variants expected, rapid screening helps those who are infected and the medical response to them.
In the meantime, the faculty and students working on technological innovations can look to Verbeck’s example to make their own projects more competitive. Rondelli said he’s worked in research technology transfer for three universities and Verbeck “is one of our most prolific inventors.”
“We see this as a watershed moment for the first company that we license to get FDA approval on technology that we licensed to them. [We] hope that this is the start of a very long relationship, where after everyone who’s on this call is long gone and retired, there will be students who will be coming to UNT because this impacted their lives or their parents lives,” Rondelli said. “And that’s part of the story — they want to go to UNT to be a part of that research and be part of how InspectIR was able to change the world.”