Coronavirus tests performed in labs are the gold standard for accuracy and antigen tests are a fast and inexpensive alternative.
But backers of a third type of test, developed by a Nobel Prize winner using cutting-edge CRISPR technology, say it has the potential to be all three: rapid, accurate and inexpensive.
Although these gene-editing technology tests are still being developed and won’t be ready in the United States this year as the weather cools and demand surges, research groups recently published scientific papers describing them as an appealing alternative as testing shortages persist in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a University of California, Berkeley researcher whose pioneering work in CRISPR earned a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, said the test can be done quickly and doesn’t require a lab.
“We have a ways to go before CRISPR-based diagnostics reach widespread use, but I believe we’ll see an impact during the current pandemic,” Doudna said. “Because it is simple to adjust these tests to detect other targets, the platform we’re developing now is laying the groundwork to deploy CRISPR for rapid diagnosis during future outbreaks.”
CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a gene-editing technology studied for a wide range of uses from cancer and sickle cell disease treatments to improved food production.
In 2016, Doudna’s lab developed a way to detect RNA using the technology. Her lab collaborated with Dr. Melanie Ott of San Francisco-based Gladstone Institutes to develop an HIV test, but when the pandemic hit, the researchers focused on developing a coronavirus test.
The test recognizes a sequence of RNA in SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19
In an Oct. 12 publication, researchers reported the test yielded results in five minutes and correctly identified five samples from patients with coronavirus. When used with a mobile phone to detect signals generated by the test, the technology could provide a fast, low-cost test outside a laboratory, researchers said in the paper, which was not peer reviewed.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists also are honing a CRISPR-based test that can be used outside a lab. In a New England Journal of Medicine letter published last month, researchers said the test was evaluated at a University of Washington lab using 202 samples with coronavirus and 200 without. The test correctly identified 93.1% of positive samples. The test also had 98.5% specificity, which means it rarely reported false positives.
Feluda, a paper-based CRISPR test named after a fictional India detective, has been cleared by that nation’s drug regulators for commercial launch. But it’s unclear how the Indian conglomerate Tata Group plans to deploy the test in India, which trails only the United States with nearly 7.7 million cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Image Credit: Ernesto Del Aguila, NHGRI
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