Sage Aronson ’12 Develops Nasal Swab to Screen for COVID-19

May 6, 2020
Amanda Nagy
Man smiling.
Sage Aronson '12 is founder of Neurophotometrics and a creator of the Swab56 Project. Photo credit: Courtesy of Sage Aronson

A partnership led by Sage Aronson ’12 is making 3D-printed nasal swabs to screen for COVID-19 in the San Diego area.

The Swab56 Project targets under-represented or under-capitalized groups that are not able to access medical supplies on the open market. Aronson is the founder of Neurophotometrics, a microscope design and production company based in San Diego. The company halted its operations because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but through Aronson’s wife, Kelsey Ladt—an MD/PhD student at University of California, San Diego and cofounder of Neurophotometrics—he became involved in a San Diego-area initiative to tackle COVID-19 in a multifaceted manner. 

“One of the most critical supply shortages is a nasopharyngeal swab used to collect a sample to screen for COVID-19,” says Aronson, who was a neuroscience major at Oberlin. Based on our team's expertise in 3D printing and engineering, we set to the task of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing such a swab.”

A collection of nasal swabs.
3D printed nasal swabs.
Credit: Swab56 Project

Aronson explains that they call the project Swab56 because the team rapidly iterated through 55 prototypes over the course of 36 hours before reaching the final design. They worked with researchers and physicians at UCSD, Scripps College, and Rady Children's Hospital to fast-track the swab through clinical testing. Across clinical studies of 29 adult and pediatric patients, the swabs had a 100 percent validation rate with no mechanical failures or adverse events during sampling from 49 volunteers.

“At first, our goal was to address the shortage in testing, with a secondary goal of keeping our employees full time,” Aronson says. “However, when the clinical and mechanical testing data on the swabs came in, our goals changed. Our swab resulted in a significantly lower false negative rate compared to the current state-of-the-art product on the market. False negatives are a huge problem with COVID testing, with rates as high as 40 percent. If our swab could reduce this rate, even by a few percentage points, that would have a massive effect on the number of people properly diagnosed—the time we are in quarantine—and lives saved.”

Swab56 LLC is a collaborative effort between the teams at Neurophotometrics and Massachusetts-based metal and carbon fiber 3D printing company  Markforged. The 3D printed design couples a 3D printed nylon swab base with a wrapped rayon tip to gather the viral specimens. Aronson says the team has been hiring 30 people per week, and Swab56 is currently the main supplier to San Diego, with more than 20,000 people tested.

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