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ISU developing mail-in testing for COVID-19

Kiley Wellendorf
Ames Tribune
A team of researchers at Iowa State University is developing an innovative test for the coronavirus. Ames Tribune file photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar

Developing an innovative approach to testing for a virus — during a pandemic — is both inspiring and humbling, according to Nigel Reuel, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University.

Reuel and his team — composed of seven ISU Ph.D. students, along with collaborators Keith Pardee, assistant professor with the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto and Alexander Green, an assistant professor with the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at Arizona State University — are developing a new approach to COVID-19 testing that cuts out the drive to a testing site: a mail-in, fast-scan test for the novel coronavirus.

To develop the test, Reuel’s team received a one-year, Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant of $200,000 from the National Science Foundation. Upon submitting the proposal, Reuel received the green light within two weeks.

“As I put it together, it was just very clear this is a good application in this technology,” Reuel said. “It addresses a need that no one has a solution for.”

That problem is the shortage of PPE due to current testing practices, Reuel said.

“All of these traditional tests required someone to treat the person as if they are very contagious, and so because they have to go to these clinics and get swabbed, we’re just burning through a lot of personal protection equipment,” Reuel said.

The idea of an at-home test seemed to be a way to conquer the shortage, he said.

How it works

The diagnostic test would cost around $1, according to ISU. An individual would take nasal and cough samples and spread the samples on a card, which would be placed in an envelope “with a virus-killing coating.” After letting it sit overnight, the envelope would be deposited at a collection center or in the mail, according to the release.

“Because it could be done at home and put into this safe envelope, it could then be sent in this really low-cost paper mailer,” Reuel said. “The person receives all of the pieces they need, and (they) just put the elements together, let it incubate overnight, and then mail it back the next day.”

The samples would then be put through a reader that would give a result, available on a website to the person being tested.

To make the mail-in test possible, a sensor system identified as a “toehold switch” is used to “detect target RNA genetic material,” according to a release from ISU.

Last year, Reuel and his team came into contact with fellow researchers who had experience working with the material.

“We went to a conference in the fall where we met another group that had developed and had done really nice work on … this idea of having genetic recognition sequence, that if there is RNA present, it will cause a DNA kink to untangle, and it will allow protein to be made,” Reuel said.

The group had created toeholds for both the Zika and Ebola viruses, Reul said.

“Reuel thought the toehold technology could fit some of his ideas for a closed, contact-free diagnostic sensing system using paper-based resonant sensors,” according to ISU.

The group now is working with Reuel and his team on developing the testing for COVID-19.

“We started back in January and February when COVID really was not that high on our radar,” Reuel said of the partnership. “We were kind of kicking it around and thinking about what could be interesting situations and suddenly we didn’t have to think about a test target anymore.”

Currently, Reuel said the group is “putting together the pieces to make sure it works.”

“I’m grateful for the funding and the focus on it,” Reuel said. “The current situation we’re in with COVID … there’s not much that can fix it other than good science. I think it’s been a wake-up call of (needing) to have a strong scientific capability to react quickly to these types of things, so that way in the future when the next pandemic comes along, we’ll be better prepared for it.”