A senior research scientist at UAlbany is working to help speed up testing for the coronavirus, and his team's research just got a federal grant.
"The timing was just really perfect that we had kind of some preliminary data that showed we could detect viral RNA, and then could pivot in just the right way and at the right time to detect the coronavirus," said Ken Halvorsen, a senior research scientist at UAlbany.
Halvorsen is working on what's called a DNA nanoswitch. It's a test designed to look for certain DNA or RNA sequences. The DNA nanoswitch uses a process you've probably seen on crime shows called gel electrophoresis. If the genetic material the test is looking for, in this case, COVID19 is present, it forms a loop. But that's not the only part of the test Halvorsen's team is working to improve.
"A prototype we're working with are these gel cartridges that are basically already produced commercially, about the size of an index card ... you know, you sort of mix our DNA nanoswitches with the sample from the patient, and then you load it on this cartridge," said Halvorsen. "And in a sense, the signal would be kind of like a pregnancy test, where you see a band in a certain spot that tells you that you're positive."
The advantage? These cartridges are portable, readily available, and don't require all of the same chemical reagents that many of the current coronavirus tests require, and you'd have the results in about 45 minutes to an hour.
Halvorsen's team started working on this back in January, as soon as the RNA sequence of coronavirus was published by another researcher. The team just received the National Science Foundation funding for the rapid COVID-19 test last week, so now things are really in motion.
"We're just getting the proof of concept and trying to figure out what the best conditions are for running our test, and over the next two months, we'll be working to optimize our system within our lab," said Halvorsen.
This kind of development usually takes years, but Halvorsen's team is partnering with researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children's Hospital, who are also working with this test, then they'll turn to the Wadsworth Center to prove its accuracy.
"We can get samples from them and they already know if they're positive or negative, and then we can compare our results from what they got from the standard tests," Halvorsen said.
If, after all of that, Halvorsen's team can prove the test works, a manufacturer could begin creating these rapid coronavirus tests on a commercial scale where they could be widely used for testing.
You can learn more about the Halvorsen lab here.