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Northwestern University Scientists Working on COVID-19 Test

Scientists at Northwestern University are racing to develop a new kind of rapid test to detect the novel coronavirus that would be inexpensive, easily mass produced and simple to administer.

by Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune / April 22, 2020
A public health care worker, right, collects a nasal swab from Joshua Donnan for novel coronavirus testing at a drive-through sample collection event held by San Bernardino County Department of Public Health at Montclair Plaza in Montclair, Calif. on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Carolyn Willard, left, also got tested. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS

(TNS) — Northwestern University scientists are racing to develop a new kind of rapid test to detect the novel coronavirus that would be inexpensive, easily mass produced and simple to administer.

Their work involves creating a synthetic molecule designed to quickly identify SARS-CoV-2 from a nasal swab or saliva sample, as well as detecting the virus in water or on surfaces. Results would come in less than an hour, at the location where the test was taken, according to the team.

If all goes well, the test could be rolled out this fall, when the nation is expected still to be grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. It could help inform decisions about reopening the economy or be deployed en masse in the event of a resurgence of cases, the lead researcher said.

“All these articles are saying we need orders of magnitude more testing, either to inform what’s happening now, or if there’s a resurgence in the fall," said Julius Lucks, a Northwestern chemistry and biological engineering professor who’s heading up the research. “In my view, testing provides this critical piece of information that’s kind of the linchpin behind almost any strategy used to combat” the disease.

“So we’re trying to do this as fast as possible,” Lucks added. "We see it as a major piece of life as we know it from now on.”

The work of Lucks and his colleagues at the university’s Center for Synthetic Biology is being funded with a National Science Foundation rapid response research grant of $200,000. It was awarded Friday and is among scores of efforts the federal government has fast-tracked to hasten research into the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.

The Center for Synthetic Biology has pioneered the use of rapid, on-site tests that find contaminants in the environment, according to scientists there. Now they hope to use those methods to bridge gaps in COVID-19 testing.

They are working closely with Stemloop Inc., which was spun off from the Center for Synthetic Biology to commercialize tests developed by the center and is run by a former postdoctoral fellow in Lucks’ lab. Lucks and one of his center colleagues working on the new test have financial interests in Stemloop, the university disclosed.

To create the test, the NU scientists are trying to produce a molecule that would “identify” the virus — just as certain natural molecules do in the human body to perform any number of biological functions.

“Natural organisms all around us have ways of sensing and monitoring their own environments, and the way that they do that is through molecular machines that can recognize specific targets,” Lucks said. “So, what we are doing is kind of repurposing nature’s molecular machines to detect what we’re interested in.”

Although other similar efforts are underway elsewhere, Lucks believes NU can improve on the efforts to make the tests “easier and more powerful.”

Widespread testing is something scientists agree is needed to get the pandemic under control. It will help determine who’s had the virus and may be safe to return to work, as well as help get a much better sense of how far and wide the virus has spread across the nation.

A Harvard University study released Monday concluded that 20 million tests will be needed each day by midsummer, although others have given much lower estimates. Even those lower estimates have yet to be achieved, and that’s where Lucks thinks the NU test could come in.

“The main point is we can make testing to scale, make it easier, cheaper, get more tests out there," he said. "That’s what we need to do.”

Most of the current testing methods used in the United States require specimens to be sent to a lab for analysis. On Tuesday, the company LabCorp announced it had secured emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a test in which nasal swab samples could be collected at home with a doctor’s order. But the samples would still have to be sent to labs.

The FDA also has given emergency authorization to four blood tests designed to detect antibodies to SARS-Co-V-2, and the agency has let many more go to market without validation. But questions remain about the accuracy of the tests and about how many antibodies people need in their system to make them immune for some period of time.

The goal of the Northwestern scientists is a test that would not require lab analysis and would deliver results in less than an hour, Lucks said.

In addition to human testing, the new process could be used to detect the virus in waste water, which could help determine how far the virus has spread, or swabs from a hard surface, which would be helpful in health care settings.

“We’re trying to develop a test that only takes a single step ... and doesn’t need any equipment," Lucks said. “One of the major issues with testing today is a lot of the gold-standard methodologies require laboratory equipment that has to be located somewhere, takes expertise, reagents and so on.”

“We’re trying to design them to be as simple to use as a pregnancy test," he added. “Just apply the sample, wait for the result and you can do them anywhere.”

©2020 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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