Israeli researchers said on Sunday that they developed a testing method for COVID-19 that they say is up to 10 times faster and more cost-effective than the methods currently used to analyze samples.
Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) said the test relies on an existing, well-known process to extract genetic material (RNA and DNA) using magnetic beads, common in genomic labs, but uses a special buffer solution to accelerate and ameliorate binding. The method was developed by Professor Nir Friedman at Hebrew University’s Institute of Life Sciences and School of Engineering and Computer Science and Professor Naomi Habib at HU’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science.
Since COVID-19 testing requires RNA material, Professor Habib tells NoCamels that the test uses an existing product based on magnetic beads, which come with a prepared buffer solution. Then, an in-house mixture concocted by the Israeli scientific team is added to prepare the beads to extract the RNA molecules.
The method also helps to mitigate the country’s test shortage due to a deficit of chemical reagents. Magnetic beads are the only item in the protocol that needs to be imported from overseas, but they can be recycled and used again.
“So we don’t need to actually change anything along the pipeline, just in the lab itself, we developed a ‘plug-in’ solution, so instead of doing the RNA extraction using commercial kits, which are really hard to obtain these days because there’s a shortage worldwide, they could use our solution with the magnetic beads. We’ve already adapted it to fit [with the testing process]; we’ve optimized the buffers, the different liquids, the volumes, and there’s a robotic application that works with 96 samples [at a time],” Professor Habib tells NoCamels.
“Usually, in laboratory conditions, we work with very clean samples, but here we have samples gathered in the field, in clinical settings, so we really had to make this process work with the way samples are being gathered today in Israel and other places in the world,” she says
The method yields a result within 20-30 minutes, whereas regular testing takes 2-4 hours, she tells NoCamels.
The protocol has been published online “for anyone to use,” she explains. The idea was to take something that they “knew could potentially work, making it less expensive by making it lab-made, and making it work specifically for RNA samples collected via swab test.”
The method was validated at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem where it is now “fully operational,” the scientists say.
“Our COVID-19 test significantly reduces labs’ dependence on external factors,” Prof. Friedman said in a university statement. “To date, we’ve tested hundreds of clinical samples from Hadassah Hospital and our results were identical to those found by the kits currently being used.”
The next step is to scale up, Professor Habib tells NoCamels. “This method can be adopted widely because it will work with any swab sample around the world,” she says. It may also allow for an increased rate of simultaneous tests, tens of thousands of samples instead of the current rate of thousands, to be analyzed.
She indicates that the team has already fielded calls and requests from abroad.
Habib and Friedman teamed up with 15 researchers and lab students from the university to develop their method.
“It’s very moving to see a large group of researchers so dedicated to finding a solution to our current crisis, one that will get Israel—and hopefully the rest of the world—back to normal,” Habib said in the university statement.