May 8, 2020

UCalgary researchers develop a new method to test for COVID-19

Test allows for rapid results in areas with limited access to high-tech diagnostic equipment

A research team led by scientists at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) is sharing a new method to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The test can provide results in 30 minutes without the need for high-tech equipment and the reagents that have been in limited supply worldwide.

“Results from this method can be seen with the naked eye, the chemicals required are easier to access, and do not require refrigeration,” says Dr. Dylan Pillai, MD, PhD, study lead, clinical-researcher and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM. “The process can be made portable, which opens up testing in resource-limited settings.”

  • Photo above: Researchers Dylan Pillai (standing) and Abu Naser Mohon in the lab at the Snyder Institute. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Further research and validation is ongoing to evaluate the possibilities for large-scale testing using this method, and to determine when the test may be available for widespread use in Canada and around the world. 

Researchers Dyan Pillai and Byron Berenger

Researchers Byron Berenger, left, and Dylan Pillai.

“We are in the early stages of unlocking the potential of this method,” says Dr. Byron Berenger, MD, co-author,
Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL) Public Health Laboratory. “As we’ve seen in Alberta, detecting and tracking positive cases of COVID-19 has proven critical in containing the spread of the virus.”

The process uses a technique called loop mediated amplification (LAMP) which detects the viral genetic material from a nasopharyngeal (nose/throat) swab or saliva. LAMP does not require expensive laboratory equipment and the result can be seen without instrumentation. 

“We’ve taken the lessons from our extensive work with LAMP for malaria in lower-middle-income countries and applied them to a testing method for SARS-CoV-2,” says study first author, Dr. Abu Naser Mohon, PhD, a member of the Pillai Lab.

Prototype of hand-held test.

Prototype of hand-held test.

The research team also includes experts from Illucidx Inc. and the University of Washington, in Seattle. Findings are published on a free online health sciences server, medRxiv, so that laboratories across the globe can benefit. In parallel, the team has submitted the study to a peer-reviewed journal for input from noted experts in the fields of infectious disease, and microbiology.

“We’re in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve validated the process and found that the test shows greater than 97 per cent accuracy compared to other molecular methods. It’s very important to get this information out so others can benefit,” says Pillai. “Any clinical laboratory can adopt this method into its workflow now. We know for some places in the world, testing large numbers of people is difficult — this simplifies the process and makes it accessible.”

The research is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Genome Canada and the University of Calgary/Alberta Health Services Clinical Research Fund. The grants were announced the first week in March.

The research team says the work is not over. While no high-tech equipment is needed for the testing method, it still requires small laboratory items. The team is now working to develop a hand-held cartridge test which could be used anywhere and would not require any additional lab items. The researchers hope to have a working model before the end of the year.

With this test, you can see a positive result for COVID-19 with the naked eye — the green-tipped ones are positive for the virus.

With this test, you can see a positive result for COVID-19 with the naked eye — the green-tipped ones are positive for the virus.

Pillai Lab

Dylan Pillai is a professor in the departments of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.

Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases
The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.