A group of scientists from the Department of Optical and Biophysical Systems of the Institute of Physics of the Academy of Sciences is developing a new technology that can help against the current coronavirus pandemic. The Czech biosensor can detect viral particles of cornavirus within half an hour. “It’s a universal method, and it can be applied to other viruses. The device itself is mobile and fits in the briefcase, ”said Alexandr Dejnek, head of the department
What makes a biosensor unique?
Unlike currently used methods that detect either a sample RNA fragment (PCR-based polymerase chain reaction testing is a fast and easy DNA segment multiplication method based on the principle of nucleic acid replication), or detect antibodies that the body produces (such as quick tests) our device is designed to detect coronavirus particles alone.
Do I understand that a device can detect a coronavirus in the body before antibodies are formed against it?
From a lay point of view, can I imagine that you can catch the virus before it “settles” in the body? When a virus enters the body and “settles”, as you say, it begins to multiply significantly before the body begins to form antibodies.So we can detect the presence of the virus (virus particles) in any sample.
Can you explain how the biosensor works?
Generally, the term biosensor is used for a detection device that combines a biological component with a physicochemical detector.
The heart of our system is a biochip with a functionalized ultra-resistant surface that is connected to a piezoelectric measuring system. The biosensor surface is designed to remain clean even in a very complex solution and only retains coronavirus particles.
The whole system works with samples dissolved in the liquid. The sample is added to the solution, which is then released over the surface of our biochip using a microfluidic cell. As soon as viral particles are trapped on the surface, we detect this as a signal change.
Are your biosensors still talking about sampling?
Yes. Our method works with samples dissolved in liquid. This means we either take a sample of swab, body fluids, or we can test water directly. When testing patients with classical swab, the sample has the advantage that it is taken from the site with the highest concentration of viral particles. Therefore, I would maintain this procedure because the higher the virus concentration in the sample, the shorter the detection time. Of course, this method can also be used to detect virus from smears from cranks, floors, clothing and to detect the virus in wastewater, for example.
We received a very interesting offer for testing wastewater and groundwater, where the virus can also get from infected patients. The probability is small, but in some quantities the virus can enter groundwater or wastewater. This is not about testing people, but about potential sources of infection, because nobody knows what is happening to the wastewater at the present time. There has been information that sewage systems may be the source of infection. It may not be true, but we will certainly work on it.
“We have no doubts about functionality”
So you are already testing wastewater?
We are currently developing a sensor. The current situation is that thanks to cooperation with the police, we are in the prototyping phase, ie we already have the technology. We have already tested some viruses, bacteria and toxins.
So we know how it works and how to function our biosensor on a specific virus. The only thing that has so far hampered us in terms of coronavirus was access to laboratories that are licensed for coronavirus research. There are not many of them, but we managed to start cooperation with the Biology Center of AS CR in České Budějovice and with the Faculty of Science of the University of South Bohemia.
We also heard from other laboratories, so we already have the complete infrastructure needed for further development. We have no doubt the functionality of the technology, but we need to debug it for this virus. For example, we know how much we are able to catch bacteria, but we do not yet know the sensitivity of the biochip to coronavirus.
According to our estimates and simulations, the sensitivity of the biosensor will be high and absolutely sufficient for testing. Our goal, however, is to make the sensor as sensitive as possible so that we can detect even a small amount of virus.
Now we are in a state of initial testing, within a few weeks we could have the first prototype.
Is there anything else that will hinder you in the future?
Any test equipment is subject to standard certification, which means we will have to prove its safety and functionality. The idea is to use it on a large scale so that it can be used by government, hygiene and so on. Given the current situation, I believe that certification and validation processes could be accelerated.
Since we are a research laboratory, we will be able to produce a maximum of one hundred chips per week. To make the technology available to a wide range of users, it will be necessary to transfer production to industry. Then the certification and verification should be taken care of by the manufacturer. We, as an academic institute, cannot act as producers.
We will make a prototype and complete documentation, or set the possibility of scaling the technology and in the interest of rapid implementation we can help the manufacturer with the construction of the production line.
Has any manufacturer already contacted you?
We were approached by several foreign producers and preliminary negotiations are underway. We are in a state where we are preparing the most important part of the technology for patenting.
We would like to file a patent application in a matter of weeks, allowing open negotiations with industry. We haven’t made the application yet, as all efforts are directed towards the development of the biochip itself, and new ideas arise every day.
Back to the sensor itself. So can your device clearly say whether or not a person is positive for coronavirus?
Yes, as it will be possible to detect the presence of coronavirus particles directly.
How long until you can tell if a person is infected?
Is the time in hours, minutes? According to preliminary tests, this method allows detection within 10 to 30 minutes depending on the concentration of the substance to be detected.
Discover coronavirus as soon as possible
So half an hour is the time for you to know the outcome?
Yes. It may also happen that in a sample with a lot of virus, we will know the result within five minutes. Then we don’t have to test further. Within 30 minutes, however, we should be able to say with confidence.
Where did the idea come from?
This idea came from Dr. Lísalová, who leads the team of Functional Bio-interfaces within the Department of Optical and Biophysical Systems of the Institute of Physics AS CR.
This was due to the development of a platform for the development of a prototype of detection systems in cooperation with the Czech Police Protection Service, where the possibilities of a system for rapid detection of pathogens in foodstuffs were tested.
Have you already tested the biosensor?
Currently we are preparing the first experiments in virological laboratories of our partners at the Institute of Parasitology of the Biology Center AS CR and at the Faculty of Science, University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice.
However, we have already detected Escherichia coli O157: H7 or Salmonella typhi in a homogenized hamburger, for example, in our ongoing projects. We have also successfully detected Hepatitis A virus in food samples. Therefore, we are convinced that the biosensor can detect coronavirus as the Hepatitis A virus is much smaller.
Do you have any information that something similar would occur abroad?
We know that several private pharmaceutical companies have gone in a similar direction, but they work in confidentiality, so the current situation is unknown.
So, when could the biosensor be used?
We try to make it as soon as possible. We want to have the first functional prototype in the order of several weeks to months. Then we will have quite extensive tests, during which we will tune sensitivity and reliability.
For example, people who return from some exotic countries could be tested. This would allow one to easily test for the most famous diseases, and quite quickly the person would know the outcome of whether he or she got infected or not.
Could the biosensor replace the use of current laboratory testing methods or rapid tests?
I don’t think this is a substitute. Rather, by using this technology we could greatly expand the testing possibilities. The possibility of detecting the presence of coronavirus in the body before human antibodies are formed is crucial.
Will no further tests then be required?
It depends on the use of this method. If, for example, we used this method for the initial control, and if someone showed the presence of coronavirus, then he would have to undergo real time PCR tests, which is considered the current “gold standard”.
Must a second verification be performed?
Is the biosensor unable to verify the sample at first? PCR is a proven standard method that we do not plan to displace but supplement. Although quite complex and lengthy, it is also very accurate and therefore acts as a worldwide standard.
For biosensors, however, the advantage is that we can detect the virus particle directly and say that the coronavirus is 100% in the sample. But our goal is not to compete with the method that has been developing for decades and is the world’s gold standard.
The biosensor will be rather a fast and accurate method, which is also mobile. The device itself is relatively small and can be placed, for example, in a portable case. This means that it is more of a terrain method that you can transfer anywhere and get results within 30 minutes.
Will the biosensor be used for anything other than the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?
This method is very versatile and can be used to detect bacteria, toxins and viruses. It depends on the correct functionalization of the biochip surface. In principle, the method can be adapted to test most diseases of viral or bacterial origin.
We just need to properly functionalize the chip in the sensor. Some laboratories have already shown interest in testing other pathogens. You also cooperate with the Czech Police on the biosensor.
What specifically do they help you with?
The basis for the biosensor we develop is the detection system currently being developed for the Police ČR Protection Service, which provides us with very valuable consultations in this cooperation. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you more about this because of confidentiality. I would just point out that this cooperation helps us a lot.
If everything goes well on your side, can we imagine that biosensors are part of the equipment of hospitals and sanitation?
Certainly yes, I would see the use much wider. The aim is reliable, fast and relatively cheap detection technology.
In what sense do you mean the wider use?
I would definitely not limit the use to hospitals or hygiene stations. The technology can also be used in the private sector, whether for testing people, spaces, air or liquids. The advantage of the chip in the biosensor is that it can be reused until it detects the virus particles.
We can imagine it, for example, at entrance controls at workplaces where it is necessary to know 100 percent that these people are negative. This means that everyone would have to pass the test, and since everyone is not expected to be positive, the chip could be used repeatedly until someone positive got caught.
Then the chip would be replaced and at the same time it would be a very cheap technology. Twenty to thirty minutes per person is not that long, so this is one of the ideas where the biosensor could be used.
What would be the difference with the current prototype you’re working on?
In a multi-channel solution, the idea is that multiple samples could be tested in parallel. One chip could be usable in parallel to several measurements. Alternatively, the chip could be arranged to detect the presence of several different infectious, viral, and bacterial particles simultaneously. This could, for example, test people who would return from some exotic countries.
This would allow one to easily test for the most famous diseases, and quite quickly the person would know the outcome of whether he or she got infected or not. But we are talking about something that we will only deal with in the second half of the year. We talk a lot about smart quarantine or testing in retirement homes.
So could your device be used in these cases?
Yes, I would see a real use of the biosensor here. It could even detect the presence of the virus in rooms preventively or specifically in areas where the movement of infected people is suspected. For example, swabs from handles, floors, furniture and so on are enough.
Are you working on something else related to coronavirus?
Our range is quite wide. We participate in the introduction of the Czech respirator into mass production. We also have an interesting project for disinfection and sterilization using the ozonator and low-temperature plasma generator that we develop at our institute. With the SIGMA Research and Development Institute, which manufactures respirator filters, we develop a sterilization system allowing the reuse of filters.
The developed portable device is able to destroy all contamination without damaging the filter. A very robust platform of the MATCA National Competence Center supported by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic enables us to respond quickly to the current needs of the company.
Thus, we cover the entire circle, not only by detecting viruses, protecting the population from them, but also destroying them with ozone.