STOPCovid: New Rapid Test Shows Improved Sensitivity


    The COVID-19 Pandemic has had researchers all over the world looking for new and improved methods for testing and treatment of the virus. STOPCovid is one such new discovery. Researchers at MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, along with their collaborators at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Ragon Institute have been working on a new and quick way to test for COVID-19.

    Their new discovery, STOPCovid, is a CRISPR-based diagnostic for COVID-19 which can give results within 30-60 minutes. They claim its accuracy to be similar to the standard PCR diagnostic which is being currently used. STOPCovid is still in the research stage, but it is claimed that it could be made cheap enough to the extent that people can test themselves for COVID-19 every day. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it is showed that their test detected 93% positive cases on a set of patient samples, as determined by PCR tests for COVID-19.

    According to Omar Abudayyeh, who is an MIT McGovern Fellow working on the diagnostic, Rapid testing is needed so that people can test themselves every day, which will slow down the outbreak. The first authors of the paper are Julia Joung and Alim Ladha in the Zhang Lab, who are MIT biological engineering graduate students.

    Abudeyyah is one of the senior authors of the study. Others are Jonathan Gootenberg (McGovern Fellow), Feng Zhang (Core member of the broad institute, an investigator at the MIT McGovern Institute and Howard Hughes Medical Institute), James and Patricia Poitras (’63 Professor of Neuroscience at MIT).

    Zhang’s laboratory has been working with Abudayyeh and Gootenberg laboratory on a diagnostic since the coronavirus outbreak. Their focus was on making an assay, STOPCovid, a diagnostic that is simple to carry out and doesn’t require any laboratory equipment. They hope for this test to be useful in the future at several point-of-care locations such as schools, doctors’ office, pharmacies etc.

    Joung says that they developed STOPCovid so that everything could be done in a single step, which means that tests can be performed by nonexperts outside the setting of a laboratory.

    How STOPCovid works

    In the recently reported new version of STOPCovid, the researchers have incorporated a process in which they add magnetic beads which attract RNA to concentrate viral genetic material in a patient sample. This eliminates the need for expensive purification kits which are not only time consuming but are also in short supply due to high demand. This step has boosted the sensitivity of the test to the level of that of PCR.

    How STOPCovid works. Source: MIT News.
    How STOPCovid works. Source: MIT News.

    “Once we got the viral genomes onto the beads, we found that that could get us to very high levels of sensitivity,” Gootenberg says.

    The researchers worked with collaborators Keith Jerome at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Alex Greninger at the University of Washington and tested STOPCovid on 402 patient samples. Out of these samples, 202 were positive and 200 negative. The new test detected 93% of positive cases as determined by the CDC PCR test which is the standard test.

    Ladha found STOPCovid working on actual patient samples really gratifying.

    Equipment Required for STOPCovid Test. Source: MIT News.
    Equipment Required for STOPCovid Test. Source: MIT News.

    While working with Ann Woolley and Deb Hung at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, they showed that STOPCovid test also works on samples that are taken using less invasive anterior nares swab. Currently, they are testing it with saliva samples, in the hope that it could make testing at home easier to perform. Their end goal is to help people fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

    According to Zhang, their goal is to make STOPCovid easy to use and sensitive, for us to tell whether or not someone is carrying the virus, as early as possible.

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