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Mid-March, UNC’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research vastly reduced and restricted research activity campus-wide in response to COVID-19. These restrictions affected research operations across UNC’s Radiology’s Clinical and Basic Science units to various degrees.

In Basic Research, the Department’s Small Animal Imaging (SAI) core ramped down research activities to only “Critical Research Activities” approved by the Vice Chancellor’s office. The core kept two essential lab staff onsite supporting several critical animal model imaging studies that had to continue because of existing animal models that were impossible or too costly to be restarted later.  The core remained partially open for April and May. Main onsite research activities included optical imaging and PET/CT imaging in mouse tumor models.

All image analysis and data management have been conducted remotely by staff working from home. At the end of May, the SAI made a re-opening work plan for staff and facility users to ramp up research activities with precautions, in response to School of Medicine (SOM) guidelines for re-opening. PPE, including gloves, masks, face shields, and lab coats, were stocked and prepared in the facility. Each imaging lab determined a maximum allowance of personnel, most permitting only one user at any time. Facility staff were placed in separate rooms to reduce personnel interaction. All meetings with users and lab staff were moved to online.  Equipment cleaning after usages was re-enforced among staff and imaging users. The facility replaced in-person training and user education with online videos.  With the re-opening work plan in place, the SAI core opened full schedule June 1st.  In August, the facility resumed all animal imaging services following the new University standard operating procedures (SOPs) adapted to pandemic guidelines.

During partial closing and ramp-up, the SAI core improvement never experienced any holds on infrastructure development. Both an IVIS-Spectrum optical imaging system and a Quantum-GX preclinical CT imaging system were acquired and installed in July and August via combined NIH S10 grant and UNC SOM and School of Pharmacy support. Fully open imaging operations for an IVIS-Spectrum optical imaging system, and a Quantum-GX preclinical CT imaging system began in October.

SAI Core Director Hong Yuan, PhD, stated: “Our usage has been ramping up since June. Usage in May was the lowest, about 20% of normal operation, and increased to 50% in June, and close to full capacity in July.  The SAI core’s new imaging systems provide enhanced imaging capability to our research community.  The facility is working to open up the imaging service to the public, including preparing online training materials, meeting online to consult with needed research labs, scheduling calendars, developing policy and re-arranging lab space to ensure sufficient social distancing when using the imaging equipment.”

Other units at UNC’s Biomedical Research Imaging Center have maintained continuity of activity throughout the entirety of Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research restrictions on operations, both remotely and via onsite personnel decompression and other COVID19 precautions in place.

The UNC Image Analysis Group develops novel computational tools driven by artificial intelligence to meet the data analysis needs of imaging researchers. The lab covers a wide range of research spanning image acquisition, reconstruction, quality control, processing, and analysis, with applications to neuroscience, radiomics, and surgical planning.

Director and Associate Professsor of Radiology Pew-Thian Yap, PhD, stated: “COVID-19 has not significantly impacted research in our group. All of our researchers have been working from home. We are adapting to the ‘new normal,’ staying flexible in accommodating atypical schedules, and continuing to pursue our research goals.”

UNC’s Radiochemistry facility supports efficient and safe radiopharmaceutical product development and production for molecular imaging studies and the facility’s ongoing research. Its personnel oversee daily Radiochemistry Laboratory operations involving the transfer of radioisotopes directly from the Cyclotron to shielded hot cells equipped with remote manipulators via multiple hot cells, gas chromatographs, dedicated HPLC systems for clinical dose preparation, in-line UV and radioactivity detectors, radioactivity dose calibrators, balances, pH meters and rotary evaporators.

Radiochemistry Research & Cyclotron Program Director Zibo Li, PhD, noted: “In the Cyclotron and Radiochemistry area, we are taking shifts to reduce the population density. Social distancing and wellness check is routinely done.”

* (L to R): Hong Yuan, PhD / Pew-Thian Yap, PhD /  Zibo Li, PhD