Much of the discussion around moving past the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on the development of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but new diagnostic tools are also critical to address the health care and economic challenges caused by the pandemic, identify future outbreaks early, and protect the most vulnerable populations.

Shana Kelley, university professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, discussed the importance of diagnostic technology and shared examples of innovative research taking place at the University of Toronto in a webinar hosted by the Faculty on July 7.

Current testing methods use a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect viral RNA. PCR is highly sensitive and specific, but it also has significant limitations, including slow turnaround times and a limited number of tests that can be performed. Diagnostic tests using PCR will continue to be important in the future, but need to be complemented by point-of-care rapid testing.

Rapid diagnostics would change pandemic management

Kelley discussed how new rapid diagnostic technologies would help to transform how the pandemic is managed. Patients could be monitored more closely over time, health care workers and visitors at hospitals or long-term care homes could be tested daily or as needed, and people arriving at airports and border crossings could be tested at point of entry, all of which would help to prevent spread of the virus. But developing new diagnostic tools requires significant, sustained investment, which traditionally has been difficult to secure for this field of research.

As director of the PRiME precision medicine research initiative at U of T, Kelley shared examples of innovative technologies being developed by several researchers in the multidisciplinary research group, including Keith Pardee’s “lab in a box” technology that uses synthetic biology to detect viral nucleic acids. She also discussed her team’s research to develop a hand-held device that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in saliva, which could be used like a simple thermometer. Her team has developed a sensor that uses a virus-specific antibody and DNA linker embedded on a positively charged electrode to detect the virus. They are now developing a prototype and working with clinical partners to test the sensitivity and specificity.

The presentation generated several questions that led to interesting discussion about the future of diagnostic technologies in the context of COVID-19.

By Eileen Hoftyzer

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