25 Oct UW-Madison: Faster, simpler COVID test offers hope for future pandemics while serving present needs
In early March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing Duane Juang and other graduate student researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to work remotely, the biomedical engineering PhD student came across a Politico article. The story sounded a warning about how a dearth of lab supplies was hampering COVID testing across the United States.
Juang, who had experience working on fast, efficient diagnostic technologies in the lab of Professor David Beebe, emailed his mentor to ask if their research might offer a solution to the problem.
More than 18 months later, Juang has completed his PhD and is working toward commercialization of a faster, simpler and less expensive alternative to PCR tests, the gold standard for detecting SARS-CoV-2. The test, which could easily be adapted to other infectious diseases, is based on an innovative combination of technology that he, Beebe, PhD student Terry Juang and other UW-Madison collaborators outlined in a study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Given the costs and complexities of PCR-based tests, which need to be processed in large batches at a centralized lab, patients generally have to wait a minimum of 24 hours to receive their results. By contrast, the team’s Oil Immersed Lossless Total Analysis System (OIL-TAS) features a simpler setup, allowing it to produce results within an hour while requiring only minimal equipment.
Like a PCR-based test, the OIL-TAS uses RNA extraction and then a chemical reaction to detect nucleic acids from a virus (unlike antigen tests, which detect a protein on the surface of the virus and are less sensitive).
However, the OIL-TAS employs a rapid extraction method that Beebe’s lab pioneered. It eliminates the need to wash samples and relies on a less complex chemical assay (that’s also enclosed to decrease the risk of contamination) and a quicker detection technique that doesn’t require lengthy thermocycling. It also includes a microfluidic technology called exclusive liquid repellency, created by Beebe lab scientist Chao Li about five years ago, that prevents sample loss, safeguarding small, precious volumes. The researchers have filed several patents related to the technologies through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.