Scientists at MIT announced the development of a rapid COVID-19 test that can detect the virus in a saliva sample in as little as five minutes. The technology does not require antibodies or other expensive reagents typically associated with protein detection, and is instead based on carbon nanotubes. The nano-structures are encased in a web of polymers, into which the target molecules stick, altering the fluorescent signal generated when the nanotubes are illuminated using a laser. The researchers were able to rapidly adapt the nanotube technology to detect SARS-CoV-2, suggesting that it could be useful in future pandemics involving yet unknown pathogens.
The scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, with researchers accelerating the development of a variety of vaccines, treatments, and testing technologies that have helped us to flip the tables on the virus. However, it looks like this will be a long fight. A cornerstone of the pandemic response has been testing, and rapid tests are a particularly valuable tool. When the next pandemic hits, such technologies will help us to be better prepared.
“A rapid test means that you can open up travel much earlier in a future pandemic. You can screen people getting off of an airplane and determine whether they should quarantine or not. You could similarly screen people entering their workplace and so forth,” said Michael Strano, one of the developers of the new test, in an MIT announcement. “We do not yet have technology that can develop and deploy such sensors fast enough to prevent economic loss.”
The underlying nanotube technology was developed by the same research group previously, and it took less than two weeks to adapt it to detect SARS-CoV-2. This adaptability suggests that the technology could be repurposed to address future pandemics very quickly.
The carbon nanotubes at the heart of the sensor are encased in a network of polymers, forming a corona of polymer loops around the tubes that alter the fluorescent signal emitted by the tiny carbon structures when they are struck with a laser. The technique is called Corona Phase Molecular Recognition (CoPhMoRe) and the polymer corona is designed such that the target molecule will bind within it, measurably modulating the fluorescent signal.
“This sensor shows the highest range of limit of detection, response time, and saliva compatibility even without any antibody and receptor design,” said Sooyeon Cho, another researcher involved in the study. “It is a unique feature of this type of molecular recognition scheme that rapid design and testing is possible, unhindered by the development time and supply chain requirements of a conventional antibody or enzymatic receptor.”
Study in Analytical Chemistry: Antibody-Free Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Proteins Using Corona Phase Molecular Recognition to Accelerate Development Time