Feng Zhang Develops Prototype for Faster, Cheaper COVID-19 Test

A major hurdle in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic concerns testing: we desperately need to test at much higher rates to halt the virus’s spread by ensuring that infected individuals remain isolated. NYSCF – Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Alumnus Feng Zhang, PhD, has developed a prototype for a rapid paper strip test based on the revolutionary CRISPR gene editing technology he helped pioneer. His new test gives a result quickly and inexpensively, allowing for widespread testing using materials that only cost about $6 per test.

“We’re excited that this could be a solution that people won’t have to rely on a sophisticated and expensive laboratory to run,” Dr. Zhang, a Core Member of the Broad Institute and Professor of Neuroscience, of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and of Biological Engineering at MIT told The New York Times this week.

How it Works

The test, called STOPCovid, is currently undergoing validation in labs around the world and is pending peer review. It capitalizes on CRISPR’s ability to detect genetic signatures of disease.

“[This work] is based on a technique we call SHERLOCK that we developed a couple of years ago,” explained Dr. Zhang at a recent panel discussion held as part of NYSCF’s virtual events program. “SHERLOCK allows us to make copies of the virus’s signature, combine it with a CRISPR protein, and use that to get a result. The actual test looks similar to a pregnancy test, and it can give a visual readout within an hour.”

Dr. Zhang’s lab began thinking about how to leverage CRISPR for COVID-19 diagnostics months ago, but their initial attempts were a little more involved than they would have liked – requiring multiple tubes for different reactions.

“It’s a little inconvenient, especially if you want to scale it up,” said Dr. Zhang. “So we focused our efforts on turning it into something that’s easy to run.”

The STOPCovid test requires just a single tube and a paper strip. The tube contains the chemicals that make up the SHERLOCK system, into which a patient swab sample is added. The researchers heat the tube to 140°F, let SHERLOCK do its work, and then insert the paper strip. Similar to a pregnancy test, if two lines appear, then the virus is present.

The STOPCovid method. Image credit: Feng Zhang

What’s next?

Dr. Zhang is now working with manufacturers to combine the tube and paper strip elements into a single cartridge that could be mass-produced.

He is also involved in a number of other projects aimed at improving COVID-19 diagnostics, including a procedure for more efficient extraction of RNA from patient swab samples (which has been a bottleneck for testing) and a self-reporting app called How We Feel that tracks changes in the spread of COVID-19.

More information and updates on the STOPCovid platform are available on the project’s website.

Learn more about how the NYSCF community is fueling the fight against COVID-19.

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