Crispr to the rescue
One potential solution to this diagnostic problem may have presented itself in the form of the gene editing molecular tool called CRISPR. If you haven’t heard about CRISPR, it’s a genetic engineering tool that allows us to find-and-replace DNA with extremely high precision.
CRISPR’s precision has an uncanny ability to find a specific sequence within a sample, and one startup has a way to test for coronavirus in 30 minutes (the whole process including sample preparation will take about 4 hours).
The startup is Mammoth Biosciences, and it was spun out of the laboratory of Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of CRISPR. Mammoth has been working on its diagnostic system called DETECTR to be a robust platform to test for diseases. In collaboration with professor of laboratory medicine Charles Chiu at UCSF—the epicenter of the brain trust for the coronavirus especially in the Bay Area—Mammoth has prototyped a rapid detection diagnosis kit using CRISPR to detect the SARS-COV-2 in human samples.
How we test for coronavirus today: slow and sloppy
Many current diagnostic methods and resources are slow, have limited distribution, and costly. The US CDC6 58 created an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) assay to test the components of patients samples for SARS-CoV-2 . The assays’ analysis methods take up to 4-6 hours to complete for each patient.
On top of that, the necessary turnaround time needed to screen and diagnose patients takes more than 24 hours, as these samples need to be shipped to laboratories that have the proper machinery to perform tests. All in all, this process could potentially take 2 days to a week for a single patient’s sample.
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Where detectr could take us in the future
Dr. Chiu discussed how they could improve the current platform. He described the next step is to build out the “ability to develop multiplex tests that would test not only for coronaviruses, but other respiratory viruses and other respiratory pathogens simultaneously.” Instead of testing for one virus, patients can check if they have SARS-CoV-2 or another flu strand.
James Currier, Managing Partner of NFX and investor in the company, described the platform’s potential in a blog post: “Imagine one of those quick pregnancy tests you buy at the pharmacy, but instead of just pregnancy you could test for nearly anything. Applied to healthcare, you could detect the presence of flu, STDs, cancers, TB, strep, etc.”