Applying innovative technology to tackle COVID-19
Building on previous work to test for hepatitis and tuberculosis, NPL has developed a proof-of-concept, miniaturised and integrable graphene-based biosensor for detecting COVID-19. The virus testing procedure at the beginning of the pandemic was uncomfortable for the patient, expensive and had limited accuracy. It was also time consuming due to handling and transporting of samples and communicating back to patients.
NPL developed 10 x 10 mm prototype sensors which gave an instantaneous result, were easily scalable and cheap to produce, so had potential for wide-scale population tests. Not only are these tests very sensitive (down to the femto-molar range, compared with typically nano-molar concentrations for existing tests – about a million times more sensitive) but they can also provide quantitative data, improving our understanding of the virus and the individual’s response to it.
The proof of concept work was done for the detection of antigens (i.e. the active phase of the disease), but the test can also be used to the detect antibodies (i.e. understanding if the person has already had the disease and if they developed sufficient immune protection). These sensors have the potential to be used for widespread population testing for SARS-CoV-2 as well as other viruses. The test results are rapid and can be transmitted to phones, watches, tracking devices, the cloud or software. NPL are now looking to finance the validation of its sensor in clinical settings and partner with key stakeholders to bring it into public use.
NPL worked with a UK company that detects and helps manage diseases, such as diabetes, through observations of the eye. They use non-invasive sensors which have the potential to deliver quick and accurate tests. NPL worked with them to examine optical methods for detecting COVID-19 using handheld equipment, which require no microscope just sensors to monitor the response.
NPL also investigated developing instrumentation that would use surface enhanced RAMAN spectroscopy (SERS) to detect COVID-19, or indeed other viruses. The technique can detect singular molecules from samples of blood or saliva and could be exploited using miniaturised instruments.
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