20 November 2020, by Maria Latos
It is a plastic, fluidic device, which has micro and nanochannels, which the researchers use to detect biomolecules (like DNA).
An interdisciplinary research team from Universität Hamburg and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron wants to develop a new inexpensive, fast, and portable test for the screening of infections with SARS-CoV-2. The research team anticipates a prototype in 1.5 years.
According to the Robert Koch Institute, more than 26 million laboratory tests for SARS-CoV-2 have been carried out in Germany to date and a large number will be added in the coming weeks. The two currently available test methods require either extensive processing in the laboratory, which costs time (PCR method = real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction) or are not sensitive enough to correctly diagnose patients with even a low viral load (rapid tests).
Highly sensitive test that works much faster
“We want to develop a highly sensitive test for the coronavirus that works much faster and does not require a laboratory,” says Dr. Irene Fernandez-Cuesta from the Department of Physics at Universität Hamburg. The test should also be quantitative in order to detect infections in the early stages. Moreover, the entire test equipment will be the size of a microwave oven and deliver a result within minutes and thus also enable on-site testing, for example in retirement homes or at airports. The rapid test is being developed by scientists from Universität Hamburg and the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in close collaboration with the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) and the technology transfer offices of the participating institutions.
For the planned method, a sample is taken from the mouth, nose, or throat of the person to be examined. The liquid sample is placed on a newly developed plastic chip, inserted into a special read-out device, and tested on two different levels: First, a rapid screening for the presence of corona viruses is carried out by detecting and counting them individually; samples in which no viruses are found can be considered COVID-19 negative. If the test is positive, the sample can be further examined in a second step, for example by analyzing the RNA of the virus. “This type of reading could provide information about the patient's viral load and would work even at very low concentrations, which is the key to detecting infections in early stages,” says Fernandez-Cuesta.
Interdisciplinary cooperation with DESY
An interdisciplinary team is working on the development of the test. Fernandez-Cuesta, who recently became Young Investigator Group Leader at the Cluster of Excellence CUI: Advanced Imaging of Matter, and her research group, based at the new Hamburg Advanced Research Centre for Bioorganic Chemistry (HARBOR), combine experience in nanosciences and nanotechnology. Franziska Esmek and another member of her team will develop the chips as well as virion and RNA detection. In recent years, the scientists have already developed a method for the detection and analysis of individual DNA molecules in real time. These results were tested in biomedical samples and bacteriophages and form the basis of the project. The team at DESY led by Prof. Dr. Ingrid-Maria Gregor and Dr. Sergio Diez will design and build the test station for portable and highly sensitive in-situ analysis.
The researchers will start the work with the support of Universität Hamburg, the Cluster of Excellence CUI: Advanced Imaging of Matter, and DESY, in close collaboration with the Technology Transfer Office at Science City Bahrenfeld, the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), and the Centre for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB). “In addition, we will continue to raise funds,” says Fernandez-Cuesta. “Because the technology is not limited to SARS-CoV-2, but can be easily adapted for the analysis of other viruses or microorganisms”.