ATLANTA—In the race to develop tests for COVID-19, the U.S. has been slowed by shortages of everything from nasal swabs to test kits, chemical reagents, and other supplies needed for both antibody and viral tests, as well as by a simple shortage of lab technicians and time.
Now, Georgia State University alumnus Rodney James Nash, a molecular geneticist and biochemist, has developed a patent pending method that could improve testing for the presence of the virus, rendering a faster, easier, cheaper and simpler solution.
“The technology is older than I am,” says the 44-year-old Nash, “and it’s very popular. It has been used for everything from extracting RNA and DNA from tissue samples, to homogenizing fingernails and hair from crime scenes, to looking at the genomics of seeds or even testing cannabis for potency.”
It was even used to isolate and detect the prion proteins associated with mad cow and similar wasting diseases. Nash wondered if the device might also work when testing for the presence of SARS-Cov2, the virus that causes Covid19, even though it had not been used to homogenize viruses before.
“My professors at Georgia State always told me that serendipity and necessity can both drive science, so I thought I’d try,” he said.
Nash conducted a study with colleagues Zachary Morehouse (M.S., ’17) now of Michigan State University, and Caleb Proctor a biology master’s student at Georgia State. The study, which is currently in draft preprint with the Virology Journal, reports on the preliminary results which have not yet been peer reviewed. Utilizing a kit of 24 sample tubes in a single circular carriage, and a CDC-recommended strain of coronavirus that causes the common cold (human coronavirus 229E), they tested the homogenizer against traditional extraction and purification techniques. “We used the 229E virus,” says Nash, “because it is recommended and can safely test kits and reagents. It shares similar structural elements to coronaviruses like SARS-Cov2.”
The research team found that the method—even though faster, cheaper and simpler than traditional extraction and purification techniques—turned out to perform better. Their test found it increased the RNA yield, perhaps by exposing more of the surface area of the virus, yet decreased typical sample processing time. Traditional methods require extracting RNA, then purifying it, sample by sample. He says the results showed a 96% sensitivity rate (the ability of a test to correctly identify those with a disease) and a 99% accuracy rate (the ability to preserve intact viral RNA) in a test of 500 samples. Safety is another plus for this method: Nash says that because the device completely homogenizes and grinds the virus, it is very likely no longer infectious and won’t present a risk to lab technicians analyzing it.
“Our next step is to find people and institutions to partner with,” says Nash, who is Chief Scientific Officer of Omni International Inc, and a part-time instructor at Georgia State. He hopes that with partners, he and his colleagues can test samples from patient swabs of individuals exposed to or suspected of having Covid19.
“The country and the world is in a crisis,” Nash says, “and it’s time for innovation.”