Behind the scenes: Media Preparation Unit fills urgent need during pandemic

As the global supply chains for COVID-19 testing materials were impacted last year, School of Biomedical Sciences researchers and industry partner 3DMEDiTEch came together to develop, test and produce much needed, and in demand, testing swabs.

Playing a pivotal role in this collaboration, the Media Preparation Unit (MPU), a research service in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, were producing some 20,000 units of Viral Transport Medium (VTM) per week during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. VTM, a necessary component of each nasal swab test which ensures the sample arrives at the lab in optimum condition for testing, was needed for 3DMEDiTEch’s locally manufactured 3D nasal swabs.

Testing sites in Victoria were using between 30,000 and 50,000 tests per day during the outbreak's peak last year and the initial order with 3DMEDiTEch was for 800,000 swabs - requiring 800,000 vials of transport medium. While the magnitude of this order could not be met by the MPU or other organisations alone, the MPU stepped up and began production of some 20,000 units per week.

“It was an opportunity to get involved and make a difference in the frontline response to the pandemic,” says Prof Richard Strugnell who, together with Kate Keech and Elena Paraskeva, coordinated the Department’s efforts.

Initially, the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), located in the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, worked with 3DMEDiTEch and had iterated the swab design, with Prof Deb Williamson leading a clinical evaluation to assess the 3D printed swabs for safety and efficacy.

The team at the MPU, driven by Elizabeth Trajcevska, joined with Prof Damian Purcell and Dr Julie McAuley from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, to develop and optimize the production process of a sterile transport medium required for the swab testing kits to be produced at scale.

“We wanted to do something to help.” says Claire Fraser from the MPU.

“We trialed various methods of manufacturing to streamline our process. Sourcing the ingredients and materials required to produce the transport medium at scale was difficult at first as consumables were in high demand,” she says and reflects on how the team had to pivot to meet production, whilst maintaining their core business as a microbiological media provider to the broader research community.

Saliva testing kits

When saliva testing was introduced using Amies liquid Transport Medium (ATM) the MPU turned their sights to supply Amies transport media vials for 3DMEDiTEch’s novel saliva collection device, and continued its production efforts.

“Saliva testing is used for ‘surveillance’ testing of larger populations of at-risk people who are not feeling ill. Hospital and other healthcare workers, quarantine hotel workers, and athletes, for example, who are in close contact to infected or potentially infected patients…saliva samples can be collected and tested every day, samples are ‘self-collected’ and this allows for larger scale and more frequent testing results,” says Eric Bert, Chief Operating Officer at 3DMEDiTEch.

Oral swabs have been in high demand for managing sporting events and high risk workplaces, and at peak times, the MPU's produced around 80,000 units per week of the critical transport medium required for 3DMEDiTEch’s oral swab testing kits.

Since September last year, the MPU have produced a total 800,000 units of transport medium.

The demand for VTM has declined with supply needs rising in line with outbreaks, increased testing and ongoing usage. For the moment, the MPU continues to work with 3DMEDiTEch and is still producing 20,000 units of ATM for oral testing swabs each week.

Research report

The team within the Department of Microbiology and Immunology have recently published a report which examined the ability of viral transport medium to support COVID-19 viral culture using different sterilization options. The preservation of patient samples to enable viral culture is essential to understand why the growing list of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies fail.

Read more

Who are the MPU?

The Media Preparation Unit (MPU) in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is a small ISO:17025 accredited, microbiological media provider for the University of Melbourne, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, diagnostic laboratories and local hospitals in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.  Whilst their work with CoVID has been important, the MPU also continues to produce both general tissue culture and bacteriological media, as well as specializing in bespoke media formulations for rare organisms or specific research requirements.

MPU staff
  • Manager: Elena Paraskeva
  • Deputy Manager/Quality Assurance Officer: Claire Fraser
  • Production Manager/Quality Assurance Officer: Elizabeth Trajcevska
  • Technical Staff: Anelise Kearsey, Martina Kracica, Laura Muldoon, Nigel Cooper, Julie Trajcevksa, Kim Bell, Lina Vescio, Aaron Ristevski

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