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New smartphone-based COVID-19 test gives results in less than 30 minutes

According to the research published in the journal Cell, the new diagnostic test can not only generate a positive or negative result, it also measures the viral load -- the concentration of virus -- in a given sample.

December 07, 2020 / 09:47 PM IST

Scientists have developed a novel technology for a CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic test that uses a smartphone camera to provide accurate results in under 30 minutes.

According to the research published in the journal Cell, the new diagnostic test can not only generate a positive or negative result, it also measures the viral load -- the concentration of virus -- in a given sample.

All CRISPR diagnostics to date have required that the viral RNA be converted to DNA and amplified before it can be detected, adding time and complexity, the researchers said.

In contrast, the new approach skips all the conversion and amplification steps, using CRISPR to directly detect the viral RNA, they said.

"One reason we are excited about CRISPR-based diagnostics is the potential for quick, accurate results at the point of need," said Jennifer Doudna, a senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes in the US.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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"This is especially helpful in places with limited access to testing, or when frequent, rapid testing is needed. It could eliminate a lot of the bottlenecks we've seen with COVID-19," Doudna said.

Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for co-discovering CRISPR-Cas genome editing, the technology that underlies this work.

In the new test, the Cas13 protein is combined with a reporter molecule that becomes fluorescent when cut, and then mixed with a patient sample from a nasal swab, the researchers said.

The sample is placed in a device that attaches to a smartphone. If the sample contains RNA from SARS-CoV-2, Cas13 will be activated and will cut the reporter molecule, causing the emission of a fluorescent signal, they said.

The smartphone camera, essentially converted into a microscope, can detect the fluorescence and report that a swab tested positive for the virus, according to the researchers.

They say that the assay could be adapted to a variety of mobile phones, making the technology easily accessible.

When the scientists tested their device using patient samples, they confirmed that it could provide a very fast turnaround time of results for samples with clinically relevant viral loads.

The research found that the device accurately detected a set of positive samples in under 5 minutes.

For samples with a low viral load, the researchers said, the device required up to 30 minutes to distinguish it from a negative test.
PTI
first published: Dec 7, 2020 02:31 pm
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