Researchers develop quick turnaround COVID-19 test

Published: Oct. 3, 2020 at 12:47 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Researchers at the University of Kansas are developing a quick turnaround COVID-19 test.

The University of Kansas says a professor is leading an effort to develop a quick turnaround COVID-19 test that can be used at home.

“Eventually, our test will go into a home-like an early pregnancy test at home,” said Steven Soper, a Foundation Distinguished Professor with appointments in both the School of Engineering and Department of Chemistry. “Anyone could do it.”

Soper said his team includes a half dozen graduate students in bioengineering and chemistry and they are repurposing “lab on a chip” technology he previously developed to give doctors simple tools to more easily and quickly diagnose conditions ranging from stroke to colon cancer. It said the goal is to get the new test to market soon.

“We’re well-versed in this,” Soper said.

According to KU, the test uses a small plastic chip containing 1.5 million tiny pillars, just 10 microns wide and 50 microns tall. It said each pillar contains a piece of ribonucleic acid that “recognizes” a protein found in the COVID-19 virus particle.

“When we flow saliva through this forest of pillars that have on the chip surfaces, this DNA molecule will look to bind to the virus particle,” Soper said.

Soper said the chip will then be exposed to blue light, releasing the RNA-virus bound particles from the pillars and funnel them through a small hole, creating an electrical signal that lets users see if they have COVID-19. He said while this sounds complicated, for the user, taking the test will be very simple.

“You take a saliva sample, you put it in the chip, and the chip does the processing,” Soper said.

According to Soper, the whole process, including test results, should take around 15 minutes. He said current tests, including ones used by KU, involve multiple steps, require a trained operator to take the test and need an hour or two before results are available.

KU said Soper’s team has been working on the project since early June after researchers were allowed to return to their on-campus labs following the university’s shutdown in March. It said funding or the project comes from the National Institute of Health. It said the group includes three graduate students in bioengineering and three graduate students in chemistry.

“I think most students want to contribute to society in terms of research. If we can actually find something that would help a lot of people, that would mean a lot to us,” said Swarnagowri Vaidyanathan, a doctoral student in bioengineering who is working on the project.

According to the university, other graduate student team members include Katie Childres and Zheng Zhao, both in bioengineering, as well as chemistry students Uditha Athapattu, Sachindra Gramage and Thilanga Nandana. It said Maggie Witek, an associate research professor of chemistry, and Lulu Zhang, a postdoctoral chemistry student, are also working on the project.

“They basically stopped everything they were doing on their dissertation work to get this done,” Soper said. “Hats off to the graduate students. They’re working like crazy to get this done.”

KU said the next step in the process is to conduct clinical trials of the test between now and the end of 2020 in order to get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for widespread use.

According to Soper, once this happens, “it’s a matter of manufacturing and getting it out to the market.”

According to KU, Soper earned his doctorate in bioanalytical chemistry from KU in 1989 and returned to KU as a faculty member in 2016. It said he brought along his company, BioFluidica, which previously created new products to help doctors test for various types of cancers, including breast, colon and prostate cancer.

Soper said the new test will be adaptable for other viruses that come along in the future, as well as detecting illnesses from cancer and radiation poisoning.

“We can reprogram the chip so it can be used for other applications,” Soper said. “There’s many applications for our test, not just COVID-19.”

Super said KU is well-positioned for this kind of project. He said a nanofabrication facility opened in Gray-Little Hall in 2019, which enables researchers to create the advanced tools used in the COVID-19 test.

“That’s provided the infrastructure, and that was a big investment by the university,” Soper said. “KU has the resources that we need to move this whole thing forward.”

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