As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, the spread of the disease far outpaced our ability to recognize it with testing, and many jurisdictions struggled to understand exactly how widespread the virus was.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing methods that are widely used to test for the virus are highly accurate, but the process can be cumbersome. Samples must be sent to a central lab to be prepared and tested with specialized reagents and equipment, and it can take days to obtain results. But emerging testing technologies promise to help us test samples more quickly – and ensure we have a better understanding of the extent of future outbreaks.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) recently awarded Dr. Sanela Martic an Alliance Grant to collaborate with Ontario-based biotechnology company Nicoya Life Sciences to develop a benchtop testing method that can provide information in minutes and may be used by individuals without specialized health care training.
“The time delay of PCR testing can be prohibitive, and the costs can be high,” says Professor Martic, an assistant professor of Forensic Science at Trent University who is cross-appointed to the Environmental and Life Sciences graduate program.
Surface plasmon resonance testing could use optical technology to detect components of the virus
Surface plasmon resonance (SPR) is a biosensing technique that uses optical sensors to identify the unique characteristics of different protein binds – such as the ‘spike’ protein that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to bind to human cells.
A liquid sample is placed on a metal film, and a beam of polarized light scans the substance. This stimulates free electrons – also known as surface plasmons. Different proteins produce plasmons that will absorb or reflect light in distinctive ways. Prof. Martic and Nicoya Life Sciences are aiming to develop metal films to identify the specific light absorption characteristics components of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
New technique could be used by institutions and organizations to rapidly test for SARS-CoV-2
Unlike other high-end expensive SPR instruments, the SPR testing equipment is portable and affordable. SPR could perform many tests cheaply and quickly, with zero wait time as the unit can provide results on the spot, does not require laboratory chemicals or a lab setting, and can be operated without much training.
“SPR testing would give a direct read-out to a laptop or iPad immediately with zero wait time, and could potentially be used to test any liquid substance for the presence of the coronavirus – saliva, wastewater, blood, common surfaces, or food. It could give a positive or negative response within minutes, and would be suitable for labs, police stations, clinics, public testing sites, or anyone else who needs to perform a significant number of tests on site.”