DMSE researchers use physics technology to develop rapid COVID-19 test

Currently, PCR-, antigen-, and antibody-based technologies have been at the forefront in the development of COVID testing. However, scientists are looking into other technologies not usually used in the life sciences in order to improve the detection of the virus.

Professor Alfredo Alexander-Katz and his team at TriboSense Technologies have adapted technology that is typically used for physics applications to create a rapid antigen COVID test that has been able to detect viral proteins in minutes with high accuracy.

The test, called TriboSense One, doesn't have an optical readout for detecting viruses like many current tests on the market, but instead provides a mechanical readout to assess the strength of biomolecular interactions, looking at friction to detect a sample's molecular interactions and confirm the presence of the virus in very small concentrations.

The instrument measures how molecules in saliva affect the motion of sensing beads with magnetic properties to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 viruses are present or not. The beads and the saliva are mixed together during sample prep. Currently, the firm's test detects the spike protein of the virus, but the magnetic sensing particles can also be customized to stick to different types of proteins, for example the nucleocapsid protein of SARS-CoV-2, which the firm is also pursuing.

Once the saliva sample is collected, the consumer's job is quite simple, consisting mostly of pipetting the sample into the solution. 

The technology was originally created to measure protein-protein, protein-DNA, DNA-DNA and other biomolecular interactions. "We had to go from scratch," said Alexander-Katz. "We had never worked on viruses … and we adapted the technology to be able to do this." Eventually, the team wants to expand testing to other diseases, but the focus now is on COVID-19. 

Their testing system could potentially benefit point-of-care settings because of its small size and portability. The test is also inexpensive; while it costs around $5 to $6 right now, at scale it could even cost as little as $3.