Zag Grad Aims to Help in COVID-19 Battle

Monday, July 6, 2020

(Photo caption: Helen Xun shows off two forms of ventilator splitters she is helping to design and 3D print. Photo credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University)

Peter Tormey

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Helen Xun, a 2015 Gonzaga University biochemistry graduate, is on the frontlines of the scientific battle against the devastating coronavirus illness COVID-19. A fourth-year student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Xun has taken this year off to co-found a biotech startup that is using 3D printing technologies to rapidly prototype medical devices.

In mid-March, as the coronavirus rapidly spiraled to become a worldwide pandemic and full-blown public health crisis, Xun and colleagues focused on developing a prototype for 3D-printed ventilator adapters, known as “splitters,” with more clinical control settings for the possible treatment of victims of COVID-19. 

“Zags are out here working hard to fight COVID-19. I am very grateful for the education in biochemistry I received at Gonzaga University, which was the genesis of my path to become a surgineer."

 Helen Xun ('15)

Aimed to address a severe shortage of ventilators at that time, the project allows for one ventilator to treat multiple patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a form of lung failure that is a leading cause of death for COVID-19 patients. Splitting ventilators — also known as ventilator multiplexing — is an experimental emergency treatment that has been used before under dire circumstances, including after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The effort presents myriad and daunting design challenges.

Xun is the project coordinator, working with Johns Hopkins’ engineering professors Sung Hoon Kang, Ph.D., and James Guest, Ph.D., and Julie Caffrey, D.O., a professor in the School of Medicine. The project awaits approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization (EUA) that would allow for the splitters to be used in certain clinical settings. Once approved by the FDA, the team plans to publish its open-source design for others to use.

Helen Xun in the lab with Christopher Shallal, a member of the team and a junior majoring in biomedical engineering. (Photo: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University)

Helen Xun in the lab with Christopher Shallal, a member of the team and a junior majoring in biomedical engineering. (Photo: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University)

“The goal here is to quickly get this technology to hospitals around the world — and right to the people who need it the most,” said Xun, a 2019-2020 Dean’s Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

A graduate of Sunset High School in Portland, Oregon, Xun aims to become a “surgineer” — part-surgeon, part-engineer and full-time innovator who constantly seeks to improve surgeries, patient safety and outcomes, and address surgeon burnout through new technologies.

“Zags are out here working hard to fight COVID-19. I am very grateful for the education in biochemistry I received at Gonzaga University, which was the genesis of my path to become a surgineer,” Xun said, adding that she hopes to inspire current Gonzaga students, especially women in the sciences.

“I want to give my mentors at Gonzaga a big shout out and ‘thank you!’ Gonzaga University transformed me to become who I am today, and I am happy to stay connected with the community,” said Xun, who served as vice-class president for three years, and class president in 2014. “Gonzaga University really helped me develop toward this direction, as the first research lab I worked in with Dr. Jennifer Shepherd really pushed me to innovate and be creative in the research space, while learning rigorous research methodologies.”

Professor Jennifer Shepherd, Ph.D. (GU photo)

Professor Jennifer Shepherd, Ph.D. (GU photo)

Professor Shepherd, Ph.D., chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department, well remembers Xun — particularly from her work in the lab where Shepherd and other researchers are investigating new anti-parasitic drug targets.

“Helen was the most driven, organized, and curious undergraduate that has worked in my laboratory over the last 21 years. She took the lead role in helping me to develop a new project using C. elegans (a free-living worm) as a model for parasitic helminths. Helen worked tirelessly on method development for 2 ½ years, and made many important intellectual contributions to the research.”

Shepherd said Xun sought collaborations, worked with vendors, designed her own experiments, and trained new students.

“By her senior year, she was performing at the level of a second-year graduate student,” Shepherd said. “Even after her graduation she continued to consult with students in my lab and assist them with trouble-shooting experiments. Helen is not only brilliant; she is also loyal and giving to others.”

Xun served as a co-author with Shepherd on a paper published last summer that Xun helped develop at Gonzaga.

“Helen had been away from the project for several years, yet she was able to provide insightful and creative suggestions for edits to the manuscript. Her new work sounds amazing. She is such a talented young woman. I had hoped that she would stay in research after she graduated, and it is nice that she can take a year off medical school to work on this project,” Shepherd said, adding that Xun’s career path as surgineer perfectly suits her talents.

“This is cutting-edge research and the ventilator adapters that she is helping to engineer may help with treatment for victims of COVID-19. I see again that she is leading the project. Helen is a natural leader and she will definitely make a big impact in whatever her career she eventually settles on,” Shepherd said.

For her part, Xun said Shepherd’s mentorship has been instrumental to her success.

“It is my hope that every individual growing and learning in STEM has the opportunity to be mentored by someone like Dr. Shepherd,” she said.