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COVID-19: Detecting the Virus in Less Time Than It Takes to Wash Your Hands

May 8, 2020

Here is a very interesting development of a rapid COVID-19 test that has involved two of our Green-SEAM researchers; Professors Jolanta Sapieha and Ludvik Martinu at Polytechnique de Montréal.

We anxiously await news on further developments.

The original press release (in French) Source : NOUVELLES

(Unofficial English Translation)

A multidisciplinary team led by Professor Frédéric Leblond of Polytechnique Montréal and Dr. Dominique Trudel of the Research Center of the Center hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CRCHUM) are working to develop a diagnostic tool capable of greatly accelerating speed with which to identify carriers of COVID-19. If everything goes as planned, the portable tool, which is about the size of a suitcase, only needs a few drops of saliva and about 20 seconds to reach a result.

The end of the approaching confinement period does not herald the end of the hunt for SARS-CoV-2; the virus causing COVID-19. On the contrary, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the ability to detect, test and isolate cases is second among the conditions to be met by states to loosen containment measures. In Quebec, as elsewhere, public health experts will therefore continue to test their citizens to ensure that the pandemic remains under control.

To do this, health services are currently using biochemical tests based on the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR, a method which makes it possible to amplify only a part of the virus’ genetic material which is then used to identify it. The catch is that this approach requires reagents to extract the genetic material, but also, and above all, enzymes that can only be produced at in limited quantities  while still needed everywhere on the planet to conduct tens of thousands of tests every day.

Raman Spectroscopy Approach

To get around the problem, Frédéric Leblond, a professor in the Department of Physical Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal and a researcher at CRCHUM, thought of using an approach that he has already proved successful: that of Raman spectroscopic imaging.

In recent years, Prof. Leblond has developed with his collaborators in the hospital environment, a series of probes used during surgery to discern healthy tissue from cancerous tissue using Raman spectroscopy. He now wants to use the same approach to distinguish between saliva carrying viral particles from that which does not.

"There are already examples in the scientific literature which suggest that we can differentiate biological fluids infected by viruses using Raman spectroscopy, so we started on solid foundations," says Frédéric Leblond.

To improve the chances of success, the researcher joined forces with Dr. Dominique Trudel, pathologist at the Center hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM) and researcher at CRCHUM, involving at the same time several master's and doctoral students as well as postdoctoral fellow Katherine Ember, whom they jointly supervise.

The team has also drawn on the expertise of Professors Michel Meunier, Jolanta Sapieha and Ludvik Martinu, from the Department of Physical Engineering at Polytechnique, for the optimization stages of the two portable prototypes which the team is working on.

The first prototype analyzes the saliva samples contained in test tubes. The second anlayses drops of saliva placed on a microscope slide. Frédéric Leblond is hopeful that this second approach will guarantee success and speed of the technique.

"We can deposit 16 drops from different individuals on the same slide, then analyze all of them in less than 20 seconds. All without having to use antibodies or other biological reagents."

If all goes well through the stages of its development, and the technique receives the approval of Health Canada, the portable tool which is the size of a suitcase can be deployed in nerve centers, according to Prof. Leblond, in particular, airports or public transport. It would clearly be more advantageous than most of the tests currently used that use the RT-PCR technique.

Transitioning Phase 1

Before reaching that point, the Polytechnique and CRCHUM team will carry out a series of preliminary tests by introducing inactivated viral particles into samples of saliva. The viruses behind colds, flu and COVID-19 will be tested in turn.

"We hope to obtain a distinct Raman profile in each case," says Frédéric Leblond.

If this approach only distinguishes samples containing a viral load without being able to identify the precise nature of the virus in question, it will still find its place in the screening arsenal according to the researcher.

"We could use it as a filter to determine those individuals with a viral load and subsequently carry out an RT-PCR test so as to save the reagents used for biochemical tests", explains the professor.

First Results in June

Phase I of the project received support from the TransMedTech Institute and the Institute for Data Valorization (IVADO), which offered researchers grants of $ 33,100 and $ 11,000, respectively. The group now gives itself a maximum of two months to complete the assembly of its prototypes and carry out its first series of experiments.

If successful, the group will start a phase II study at the CHUM that includes samples taken from patients who tested positive or negative for COVID-19.

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