University Research Team Develops High-Speed nanoPCR Technology to Diagnose COVID-19
During the initial wave of the COVID-19 global pandemic back in 2020, the Republic of Korea suffered from an explosive peak in cases. It provoked the necessity of quick, massive diagnosis tests and isolation means responding to the soaring infection numbers. To make a breakthrough that could alleviate the concerns of the authorities and also the population, it was inevitable to diminish the fatality rate by developing enhanced diagnostic capacities and isolating the infected individuals in the absence of vaccination.
Based on the previous experiences dealing with other respiratory diseases such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), various measures were implemented and every effort was made to resolve the crisis altogether. For the issue of diagnosis, two types of methods were on the rise, and the RT PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction), was the option of choice and is the testing method for COVID-19 most commonly used nowadays.
But in fact, RT PCR takes some hours to detect viruses, which leads to having serious difficulties in taking immediate actions. There are other new isothermal nucleic acid amplification technologies that may shorten times, but still they lack clinical validation and have supply issues. Seeking for an effective solution, a team from Yonsei University, a UNAI member institution in the Republic of Korea, developed a Point-of-Care (POC) technology named 'nanoPCR' that accurately detects viruses within 17 minutes using nanomaterials.
The team led by professor Cheon Jinwoo and Lee Jaehyun from the Nanomedical Research Team of the Institute for Basic Science, and Lee Hakho from Harvard Medical School, dedicated their efforts and used their extensive scientific knowledge and expertise, to create this innovative method to counter this virus, which has caused a pandemic with severe socioeconomic consequences worldwide, even with the emergence of several vaccination choices. The need to have a rapid yet faultless method to identify the virus, is growing each and every single day.
According to a recent interim guidance from the World Health Organization, "COVID-19 has put enormous demand on laboratory infrastructure and required an unprecedented rapid scale-up of testing capacity for its causative agent, SARS-CoV-2, at all levels of the health care system. More recently, the identification of variants with mutations that may confer changes in phenotypic properties, designated as variants of interest (VOIs) or variants of concern (VOCs), further highlights how detection of SARS-CoV-2 remains a critical element in the global strategy to control COVID-19."
Along these lines, the new testing method was obtained by developing the Magneto Plasmonic Nanoparticle (MPN), which combines magnetic and plasmonic materials, and applying them to PCR. Its magnetic force enables sample separation that can extract viral particles, and the plasmonic force amplifies it to support the ready detection. Thus, by actually employing the dual-functional aspect of MPN, accurate diagnosis has now become available with just a very small amount of genetic material from the individuals concerned.
The research team conducted a clinical experiment utilizing nanoPCR in practice. As a result, it only took 17 minutes to analyze a sample of a patient. The infection rate of 150 people was accurately examined, and the level of sensitivity and specificity was found to be equivalent to that of the conventional RT-PCR (~99%). Furthermore, by using the Ferris Wheel system that heats multiple samples sequentially to laser light while rotating, multiple samples can be loaded at a time, which enhanced overall analytical throughput. As nanoPCR is also compact and light (15x15x18.5cm, 3kg), it is very portable to be used on site.
Professor Cheon stated, that the development of this technology was achieved "by improving and miniaturizing the existing PCR operation method." "We expect that it will be a useful tool for diagnosing various viral diseases in the future as well as COVID-19,” he added. This research in particular will greatly contribute to rapid diagnostic testing for the prevention of COVID-19 in a variant-epidemic situation. This nanoPCR method was designed to have the same sensitivity and specificity as the already existing RT PCR technology.
This is yet another example of how institutions of higher education all around the planet are using their resources to make critical and significant contributions to the fight against this global pandemic, not only considering the implementation of their vision regarding intellectual social responsibility, but also within the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and particularly, Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being.