Scientists Are Developing a Way to Test for COVID-19 Using Your Smartphone

By Jemima McEvoy Monday, December 28, 2020

Though the authorization and dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccine appears to be imminent, it’s going to take more than injections to root out COVID-19. Additionally, there’s the potential half-year wait before the US’s general population will have access to the vaccine once it is approved. Testing has been — and will remain — absolutely critical to the country’s handling of the virus in the future.

The problem is that testing just isn’t accessible. The US government has tried to remedy this, offering rapid testing and even approving the first at-home test in November, but a large number of people still complain of limited access to quick, easy testing. This issue has led medical experts to worry that the true number of infected people is significantly higher than what’s currently being recorded. Successful solutions will have to be creative and, most importantly, accessible. What’s more accessible than a COVID-19 test on the device you carry around with you all day?

A team of scientists at Gladstone Institutes, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco have been trying to bring this vision to life. “Imagine swabbing your nostrils putting the swab in a device and getting a read-out on your phone in 15 to 30 minutes that tells you if you are infected with the COVID-19 virus,” explains a recent news release from the group, whose research is supported and funded by the National Institute of Health; the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Program; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; the Department of Health and Human Services; Fast Grants; The James B. Pendleton Charitable Trust; The Roddenberry Foundation; and multiple unnamed individual donors.

This is obviously not an easy feat, but these scientists appear to be well on their way to accomplishing it. A new study published in the scientific journal Cell outlined the technology necessary for a smartphone-based COVID-19 test, which, using CRISPR (specialized region of DNA with distinct characteristics) technology, can deliver accurate results in under 30 minutes.

“It has been an urgent task for the scientific community to not only increase testing, but also to provide new testing options,” said Director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology Melanie Ott, MD, Ph.D., who is one of the study’s leaders, adding: “The assay we developed could provide rapid, low-cost testing to help control the spread of COVID-19.”

This quicker, remote test is possible because it relies on CRISPR as opposed to the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) method of testing. PCR testing, considered the “gold standard,” is how regular COVID-19 tests are conducted. The problem is, PCR testing requires DNA, but the coronavirus is an RNA virus. Thus, the current tests need a two-step chemical reaction and people trained in the intricacies of the method, including specialized reagents, lab recruitment, and more. Clearly, that’s not something any American is going to be able to do through their cell phone, which is where CRISPR comes in.

Though CRISPR typically needs to follow the same conversion process of RNA to DNA, the scientists in the “Cell” study are proposing a different course of action that would circumvent much of the process. The researchers believe that it’s possible to use the gene-editing technology CRISPR, which excels in identifying genetic material, to directly detect the viral RNA.

“One reason we’re excited about CRISPR-based diagnostics is the potential for quick, accurate results at the point of need,” said Jennifer Doudna, PhD, a senior investigator at Gladstone and UC Berkeley professor who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 for co-discovering CRISPR-Cas genome editing. Doudna is collaborating with the scientists on this project as her technology underlines the work. “This is especially helpful in places with limited access to testing, or when frequent, rapid testing is needed. It could eliminate a lot of the bottlenecks we’ve seen with COVID-19.”

How it will work (in the simplest terms possible) is that a testee’s sample, from a nasal swab, will be combined with a Ca13 protein and a “reporter molecule” that turns fluorescent when cut. This mix will then be placed in a device that attaches to a patient’s cell phone and if the RNA from the virus is present, the Ca13 protein will be activated and the reporter molecule will emit a fluorescent signal. The cell phone’s camera will be able to recognize this signal through its camera and alert people if they have tested positive for COVID-19.

Another benefit of the technology, in addition to the quick turnaround time, is the fact that this type of testing can measure the viral load (the concentration of the virus) in the sample. “When coupled with repeated testing, measuring the viral load could help determine whether an infection is increasing or decreasing,” said UC Berkeley Bioengineer Daniel Fletcher, Ph.D.

Though there’s still a ways to go before this test makes its debut to the American public — let alone become the tool of mass testing scientists hope it can become — it’s extremely promising to see the potential. And who knows? Maybe it won’t be too long before coronavirus testing lines become obsolete.

About the Author

Headshot for author Jemima McEvoy

Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.

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