NUI Galway Developing Covid-19 Testing of Saliva Samples

Professor Charles Spillane with members of his Genetics and Biotechnology Lab team, Ryan Institute, NUI Galway, working on SFI funded COVID-19 Rapid Response project. Pictured l-r: Maryam Sathteh, Dr Galina Brychkova, Professor Charles Spillane and Dr. Noel Lucca. Photo: Spillane Lab
Sep 30 2020 Posted: 14:25 IST

NUI Galway Ryan Institute researchers are developing Covid-19 testing of saliva samples using next-generation synthetic biology tools

 Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is funding a COVID-19 Rapid Response project led by the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, to combine a next-generation Covid-19 genetic testing approach with saliva sampling, using a “synthetic biology” toolbox called CRISPR-Cas.

In collaboration with international partners from the USA and UK, the Genetics and Biotechnology lab of Professor Charles Spillane in the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway is developing a rapid CRISPR-Cas based system for detection of the virus in saliva samples. By using pooled samples, they are working on the development of Covid-19 surveillance systems for viral testing of groups of people (households, classes, companies and institution) to ultimately enable routine weekly testing.

The current testing system for the presence of the Covid-19 is carried out by taking swabs from people’s noses and the back of their throats, which is cumbersome, costly and time-consuming. Current testing systems for the presence of Covid-19 are largely based on RT-PCR assays on the swab samples, using DNA technologies that were first developed in the 1990s.

In the absence of a vaccine, there is an unmet need to massively scale up both sampling and testing throughput so that routine weekly surveillance testing of groups can enable people to know when members of their group may be infected or not. 

The Covid-19 Rapid Response project will use a highly-precise genetic “homing system” called CRISPR-Cas to develop protocols for testing saliva samples for the presence or absence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. They will develop workflows for rapidly testing individual saliva samples as well as pooled samples from groups of people, to enable routine mass weekly testing in households, schools, companies and other group settings. By developing a rapid, targeted diagnostics and screening workflow using saliva samples, the research hopes to enable Covid-19 exit strategies from lockdown in Ireland and globally based on large-scale, weekly mass testing.

Professor Charles Spillane, Director of The Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, said; “On St. Patricks day I sent a Briefing Note to a range of political leaders and government bodies in Ireland recommending that we should seriously consider a mass-testing strategy for phased exit from Covid-19 lockdown measures that could allow our economy and society to function. While progress has since been made on behavioural change ‘suppression’ measures to limit the growth of the pandemic in many countries, there remains significant potential for developing and deploying cheaper and more rapid viral sampling and test systems that could be scaled up for testing large groups of people on a routine weekly basis for the presence or absence of the virus.

“As we progress, I am interested in partnering our research with any groups (companies, schools, institutions, healthcare workers and communities) who may be interested in working with us to scale-up routine weekly testing systems so that groups can better operate for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is important that Science Foundation Ireland is supporting a swathe of rapid response Covid-19 research and innovation activities that have potential to improve the resilience of our public health, society and economy, during and beyond the pandemic.”


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