U Of U Mucus Study Seeks To Answer Critical COVID-19 Questions

May 13, 2020, 6:15 PM | Updated: May 14, 2020, 10:17 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Scientists around the globe are trying to answer critical questions about how effectively the novel coronavirus spreads through the air or gets picked up from a surface, and a biomedical engineer at the University of Utah is using a special cabinet to look for those answers.

Dr. Jessica Kramer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the U., wants to find out how effectively different forms of mucus spread the virus.

“(Mucus) covers basically every wet surface in the human body,” she said.

Mucus hydrates our tissues and keeps them wet, Kramer said. That combination of water, proteins and sugars is essential to life, and the transmission of the coronavirus.

“When we cough or sneeze, we spray out tiny mucus droplets and the virus is trapped, or encased, inside these mucus droplets,” she said.

But we don’t all have the same mucus — there are hundreds of different forms.

“We want to know if different forms of the mucus either speed or slow the transmission of the virus,” said Kramer.

To test that out, she and her eight-person team are creating eight different synthetic forms of mucus in their biomedical engineering lab.

“We are making, one-by-one, the forms we think are important in binding to the virus,” she said.

They will mix the different types of synthetic mucus with a safe surrogate of the coronavirus and aerosolize them inside an airtight biosafety cabinet. An aerosol device sprays the mucus into the stainless steel cabinet, which is sterilized between each use. A powerful UV light kills any virus the disinfectants miss.

An environmental health and safety team at the university has to sign off on all of their procedures, which were designed to reduce the number of people in the room and improve social distancing.

“Everyone in the lab is working in shifts,” Kramer said.

They are trying to answer important questions we all have about the transmission of the virus.

“Do we need to wash our groceries? Should we touch our mail? How dangerous is the doorknob?” Kramer asked.

They will also coat human cells with synthetic mucus to see how well the virus penetrates mucus and enter cells.

“It’s a really exciting time for science. People find opportunity in crisis,” Kramer said. “We’re all trying to use our skills to help in the way that we can.”

The project is slated for one year, but researchers hoped to have some results on how well the virus survives on surfaces in the next few months.

Coronavirus Resources

How Do I Prevent It?

The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

How To Get Help

If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth services through your healthcare providers.

Additional Resources

If you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at

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U Of U Mucus Study Seeks To Answer Critical COVID-19 Questions