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North Texas Genome Center at UTA Strengthens the University's On-Campus COVID-19 Testing

(UTA News Center) To help achieve its goal of facilitating a safe return to campus in the fall for the Maverick community, The University of Texas at Arlington is leveraging the expertise and resources of its North Texas Genome Center (NTGC) to bolster UTA’s on-campus COVID-19 testing capabilities.

Empowered by certification under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), the NTGC is establishing on-site COVID-19 test processing to help provide for the safe repopulation of the UTA campus and to assist local public health agencies.

“In the years since it was established, the North Texas Genome Center has earned a highly respected reputation in genome sequencing for biomedical research,” said Jon Weidanz, associate vice president for research and director of the NTGC. “After becoming CLIA-certified in January, we were poised to begin human genome sequencing for medical purposes. Then COVID hit, and we jumped into action to be able to serve our community.”

Over the course of three months, the NTGC established what its staff describes as a pop-up operation for COVID-19 rapid testing. The equipment acquired by the NTGC—two ThermoFisher 7500Fast rtPCR Instruments—gives it the potential to analyze at least 500 samples per day at full capacity.

“The response and hard work from our team at the North Texas Genome Center to quickly shift focus to supporting the needs of our University and community during this time are nothing short of phenomenal,” Interim President Teik C. Lim said. “I am so proud of this team and the extraordinary efforts they have made toward protecting the health and safety of our Maverick family.”

As part of its campus repopulation plan, UTA is establishing guidance for on-campus testing focused on students showing COVID-19 symptoms. UTA Health Services leads the University’s strategy for testing, is responsible for identifying students for testing and also has the ability to administer tests.

Students who are identified by Health Services as being in need of testing will not pay out-of-pocket costs, regardless of whether they have insurance.

Over the next few weeks, the NTGC will assist Health Services to provide same-day test results for student-athletes and UTA Athletics staff as they incrementally return to campus for training. After this period and in anticipation of more students returning to campus for the fall semester, the University will assess where and how tests for all students will be processed and how the NTGC’s resources will be best allocated.

“This is a realization of our ultimate goal of making the North Texas Genome Center a true resource for the state of Texas and beyond,” Weidanz said. “The things we’ve been able to achieve so far this year are equipping us to help in ways that perhaps hadn’t been previously considered.”

The NTGC has conducted pilot testing in coordination with Tarrant County Public Health. Weidanz said the collaboration should “give everyone a sense of security and protection.”

A foundational element of UTA’s new Science & Engineering Innovation & Research building, the NTGC launched in 2018 as a collaborative venture between universities, health care organizations and corporate partners to establish a center of excellence for genomics and high-throughput sequencing.

Through the Texas Genomics Core Alliance formed with Texas A&M University, as well as a new partnership formed with the Bioinformatics Core Facility at UT Southwestern, the NTGC offers high-speed and low-cost library preparation, sequencing and bioinformatic services. These partnerships provide sequencing and bioinformatics as services to enhance the biotechnology and biomedical research communities.

Looking to the future, Weidanz said he hopes the COVID-19 testing equipment could be repurposed to support the community in the face of future health crises or virus outbreaks.

“If it needs to be done, we’ll do it,” Weidanz said. “The support of UTA leadership, including Interim President Lim, has been vital. The attitude of all of us here is that we want to help in any way possible.”

Source: University of Texas at Arlington News Center, July 22, 2020. Story by Dana Jennings. Photo by UTA.