This is a guest post from former Genome Alberta staffer Adam Kirkby. You can contact him by email anytime.
In the age of social distancing, one brain teaser that’s plaguing physicians is how do you test a large number of people for COVID-19 without gathering our vulnerable population in a central location? Traditionally for lab tests, patients come into a healthcare centre where skilled personnel take a sample which goes to a lab technician for analysis before the results are sent to a physician. Apart from the obvious health risk that comes from asking a group of potentially sick people to all congregate in the same building, there are also a series of logistical challenges in this approach. We are talking about hours of tech time, raising the chances of infection (lab work cannot be done from home after all), backlogs of tests, waiting times, and a mountain of paperwork. Meanwhile potentially sick people are waiting anxiously for results. So, what to do?
An elegant solution comes from the laboratory of Dr. Amir Sanati Nezhad at the University of Calgary who suggests we avoid all these risks by developing a test that people can take from their home.
Dr. Nezhad is one of 49 researchers from across the country who received funding from the CIHRs COVID-19 rapid response competition. He’s proposing that the relatively new technology of Microfluidic Electrochemical Nano-Biosensors be put to use to develop a novel diagnostic tool.
Described as “lab-on-a-chip” technology, Microfluidic Electrochemical Nano-Biosensors use a series of pneumatic microvalves to guide a fluid sample through a series of five chambers. Each of these chambers is connected to an electrochemical sensor that can be adjusted to search for four different biomarkers. The fifth chamber contains a reference control which contains a blank sample that is guaranteed not to show any signs of virus and will act as a baseline result for the other chambers to be measured against.
If these chambers can be configured to test for RNA sequences specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus then what you get is a highly accurate, handheld point of care device which only needs a nasal swab to automatically make a diagnosis before digitally sending the results to a physician. Dr. Nezhad says that not only is this possible but his lab can produce such a device in a matter of a few months. With the CIHR investment of nearly $800,000, work is well on its way to make it a reality.
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, the technology will also be capable of identifying if a person had COVID-19 previously. Being able to identify individuals who have recovered from the virus and thus have developed an immunity to it, will help a struggling Alberta get back to work as quickly and as safely as possible.