Editorial Feature

Detecting COVID-19 Antibodies with an Optical Chip

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Researchers in Rochester have made significant steps towards establishing a novel diagnostic platform for detecting the presence of COVID-19 antibodies.

The method, which uses an optical chip, could prove to be a valuable tool in helping curb the spread of the virus and control the pandemic as it offers readings in just one minute, making it faster than currently available methods. In addition, the platform also has applications in diagnosing the infection of other viruses.

A New Diagnostic Platform for COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Rochester researchers have focused on pursuing novel ways to detect and better understand the COVID-19 virus. Faster methods of diagnosis are key to preventing the spread of the virus, offering healthcare systems the ability to take immediate action to prevent further transmission of the virus and improve outcomes by providing instant results.

In April 2020, three Rochester researchers made significant contributions to the development of diagnostic approaches. Martin Zand, alongside his team, has been developing a patented technology to detect immunity to COVID-19 from just a few drops of blood.

James McGrath and his team developed a platform utilizing ultra-thin silicon nanomembranes to test samples of sputum, nasal mucus, or blood, to give instant results. 

Benjamin Miller dedicated his lab to developing a new biosensor using a tiny chip to detect the presence of immunoglobulin G and immunoglobulin M antibodies within samples, instantly producing diagnostic results.

Since April 2020, Miller, the Deans Professor of Dermatology and a professor of biomedical engineering, optics, and biochemistry and biophysics, and his colleagues have made progress towards establishing their disposable optics chip, capable of detecting numerous viruses (including the coronavirus) from a single drop of blood.

Miller, based at the University of Rochester Medical Center, received $1.7 million in funding for his project from the US Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Program using funds from the CARES Act via a contract with AIM Photonics.

Developer and manufacturer of innovative laboratory testing and blood-typing solutions, Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, whose Global Center for R&D Excellence is based in Rochester, was also involved in the research alongside Syntec Optics, producers of polymer optics also based in Rochester and NY CREATES, based in Albany. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, also collaborated.

The resultant diagnostic platform that uses cutting-edge optical chip technology will no doubt assist in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will also have broad applications in the clinical diagnosis of various other infections.

Cutting-Edge Optical Chip Technology

The development of a tiny optical chip, comparable to the size of a grain of rice, is the basis of the team’s breakthrough. The chip’s individual sensors contain proteins associated with eight distinct viruses, including those related to SARS-CoV-2.

The blood of someone who has been exposed to any of the eight viruses contain antibodies that are attracted to the proteins within the sensors, allowing their presence to be detected. This kind of test allows medical professionals to understand if a person has been infected with the virus even if they show no symptoms. It can also show if they contracted the virus weeks or months ago, as the antibodies produced by the body’s immune system to fight off the infection linger for a significant time after initial exposure to the virus.

The CEO of AIM Photonics, Michael Cumbo, highlights the importance of the work conducted in Rochester, stressing how the innovative platform provides a method of more effective testing for COVID-19 and may even have implications in testing for future diseases.

In addition to providing a diagnosis, the optical chip card will allow scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of COVID-19. Deepening our knowledge of how previous infections and immunity to other viruses is vital to developing more effective preventative techniques and therapeutic approaches, particularly because COVID-19 is a new virus that healthcare systems have not had previous experience dealing with.

The next step will see the researchers test the efficacy of their novel platform on human participants. Following this, if the platform is confirmed to be effective, the team will be able to apply for around $5.3 million in extra funding to facilitate the development of the optical chip card to prepare it for commercial use. In the near future, we could see the platform being used in pharmacies and GP surgeries and an instant and effective method of testing someone’s COVID-19 status.

References and Further Reading

Chip on a card would detect COVID-19 antibodies in a minute. University of Rochester. https://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/optical-chip-disposable-card-virus-detection-465422/

Just a Drop of Blood: An Easier Way to Test for COVID-19. University of Rochester Medical Centre. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/clinical-translational-science-institute/stories/april-2020/just-a-drop-of-blood-an-easier-way-to-test-for-cov.aspx

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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