Ghent researchers use “scales” to find the aura

In the search for corona virus, PCR test is our gold standard. But Ghent researchers are close to an alternative approach, using a very precise “scale”. “Why do we put all our eggs in one basket?”

There is a good chance that you have tested yourself in the last few months where a healthcare professional has pushed a rod in your nose. The sample of genetic material collected with this in a laboratory is multiplied with a PCR test until there is enough to determine whether or not the Coronavirus RNA is present.

This test is reliable, but it is not the only way to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind Covid-19. Scientists are working on all kinds of other methods of catching aura, from rapid saliva-based tests to blow machines similar to a breath test.

These alternatives are still flawed at the moment, but Ghent University is working on a method that could be able to measure itself with a PCR test for the foreseeable future. It uses mass spectrometry, which is a device that can best be described as a “particleimeter”. This device can measure and determine the unique mass of imported particles based on this weight.

Martin DeHaines with mass spectrometry

This technique is already used for the heel prick common in children. A few drops of blood from a newborn enter the mass spectrometer, which checks for the presence of certain substances that could indicate a series of disturbances.

But this technology can also be used to track the proteins in the Coronavirus, explains Martin Daines, a molecular biologist at Ghent University’s School of Pharmacy. Each protein is made from a different blend of 20 possible building blocks. This structure gives each protein a unique appearance and a completely unique mass, which we measure using mass spectrometry. This also applies to the proteins specific to the Coronavirus.

Infection threshold

Mass spectrometry has not yet been used for virus detection. Often the samples are too complex to extract this specific molecule. But Daines and his team, along with an international consortium of academic laboratories and companies, have successfully scrubbed samples to the point that the technology identifies the virus.

And not only in the case of a high viral load in the samples. The “comprehensive specification test” succeeded in identifying the virus to some extent that it was perceived as infectious. So he should be able to remove all the serious infections with corona. “We cannot achieve the sensitivity of the PCR test,” says Denins. It can recognize the smallest part of the RNA virus present. But the question is how useful it is when you are not contagious.

In principle, we could develop a test that tests multiple infections at the same time, from corona to influenza or even a cold.

Martin Dainens

UGent Molecular Biologist

Moreover, “collective specification” has the advantage that once the genetic makeup of a mutation or variant is known, they can also identify it. “In principle, we could even develop a test that would test a whole range of infections at the same time at no extra cost, from coronavirus to flu or even a cold.”

Dhaenens is convinced that the test will prove itself in a clinical setting within a month. In principle, the door is open for use in the “real world”.

Risk spread

The question is why do you need such a new technology if you have an alternative that works well with PCR tests. “This is always the first response we get,” smiles Dainiance. I always give the same answer. Why do you put all your eggs in one basket? The vaccine race also focuses on both proteins and mRNA. All of these strategies are helpful. It is a form of risk spread.

“With just one form of testing, you are highly dependent on a very limited supply chain,” Dainens continues. The PCR test is largely based on three major reagent suppliers (Substances that cause a chemical reaction to the PCR test, ed.). If one of these falls, you have a problem. The Collective Specification uses completely different reagents, devices and auxiliary materials.

The vaccine race also focuses on both mRNA and proteins. All of these strategies are helpful.

Martin Dainens

UGent Molecular Biologist

Additionally, many countries are considering whether group tests can be used if there is room to relax again. While this strategy is controversial – Slovakia couldn’t avoid the second wave despite every resident being tested – it is still high on the radar. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wants to empty the entire British population as soon as possible through Operation Moonshot.

“If they did it with polymerase chain reaction, they would need all the reagents from around the world that week,” says Dainens. That is why the NHS contributed to this study. The Dutch government is also investing in technology. Dhaenens hopes the Belgian government will follow this example.

According to the researcher, this will not only benefit our testing policy but also provide long-term prospects. “Mass spectrometry is increasingly separate from university laboratories, with very promising applications. Technology will play an important role in health, whether it is related to blood analysis or cancer detection.

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