The Viranostic project concerns the development of diagnostic devices that can detect Covid-19 infections from the genetic material of the virus at an early stage. If successful, this will help to manage the disease much easier and more quickly, thanks to the development of a technology that would make tests widely available.
With the onset of Covid-19 infection, currently it can take some time before patients develop and recognise symptoms. This means that in those first days patients are asymptomatic and the concentration of the virus low, but at a stage where it is increasing rapidly.
Viranostic research aims to directly detect RNA (Ribonucleic acid) from the virus, compared to current methods that require a molecular amplification which essentially involves making several copies of RNA fragments using a reaction called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This process is very effective to detect minimum quantities but in the situation of a global pandemic, it has strong limitations related to the availability of fundamental reagents, errors occurring during the first copies, and sensitivity to mutations in the virus.
The use of “reagents”, which are substances added to test if reactions occurs, are used in virus detection for PCR testing and alternative methods of testing too.
Viranostic research aims at avoiding the need for specialised reagents used in the current molecular diagnosis, using instead synthetic ones that have a large global production capacity and should be less expensive than in PCR testing.
The technology is driven to detect the infection at an early stage when the viral concentrations are still low in number, and even in cases where symptoms are not yet shown, enabling better healthcare management and clinical outcome for the patient.
Sivashankar Krishnamoorthy, the project’s principal investigator explained, “These first days would be ideal to detect infections ahead on the onset of the infectious period.” This enables better healthcare management and improves patients’ clinical results. The technology developed at LIST will also be able to detect different forms of the virus at the same time or “multiplexing”, as it is known.
How is this all possible? The advancement is enabled through the miniaturisation of plasmonic and electrochemical transducers that are able to detect significantly fewer viral RNA molecules while allowing the diagnosis with multiple Covid-19 infection biomarkers at an early stage.
The development of the transducers are rooted in scientific concepts involving engineering of the structure and function of the sensors at molecular level to improve the sensitivity, response times. LIST technologies allow acquiring high sensitivities without losing the required reliability for clinical applications. Since Viranostic technology targets the direct detection of viral RNA without molecular amplification, these developments are applicable to a range of other diagnostic needs for other diseases or health conditions.
However, Sivashankar points out that “even if you have a process and technology to detect the virus today, it cannot even be used within the next one or two years as it has to go through an approval process before going into the market”.
In a nutshell, LIST enables the technologies for research into molecular detection via optical and electrochemical approaches. LIST technologies proposed for label-free biosensing are uniquely positioned to deliver sensitivity together with scalability compatible with industrial production.
On this project LIST also collaborates with the Luxembourg Institute of Health, regarding diagnostic capacity large-scale testing strategies for Luxembourg. “We also have a partner in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen that works with us on this and another project too”, said Sivashankar.
“I am the PI, the Principal Investigator in the Viranostic research project which is FNR funded and I work 50-50 in partnership on it with Lead Research Associate César Pascual Garcia on the project.”
The research has been possible because of the plasmonic biosensors and biointerfaces developed in PLASENS (Funded by FNR CORE) and MASSENA (Funded by FNR PRIDE) projects and the Electrochemical sensors proposed during NANOpH (Funded by FNR ATTRACT).
Sivashankar Krishnamoorthy leads the group of nano-enabled medicine and cosmetics group within Materials Research and Technology department at LIST. He has over 16 years of experience development of advanced nanotechnologies and their integration within devices or functional interfaces. His research at present focuses on investigation and control over structure and functionality down to molecular resolutions in application to plasmonic biosensors and nanostructured biological interfaces.
César Pascual García joined LIST six years ago into the nano enabled medicine and cosmetics group with an ATTRACT funding to develop electrochemical control of chemical reactions with the project NANOpH. He has been leading the activities of electrochemical sensors, and currently he is coordinator of the FET-OPEN project funded by the ERC which aims to the development of a flexible platform for the screening of linear peptides, with potential applications for the discovery of cancer vaccines or the identification of biomarkers of infectious diseases like the current COVID pandemic.