In the middle of the second wave of infections, the attention of the world population is directed to the laboratories that are developing possible vaccines and tests to detect the coronavirus. In Spain, a project under development could mean a before and after in coronavirus tests, as it will allowto detect the virus in a much faster, more efficient and less invasive way.

How long does it take to get the PCR results?

It is a quick test that pit would allow detecting Covid-19 in about 30 minutes. The project, led by Laura Lechuga, professor at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and called ‘Convat’, is based on Optical biosensor nanotechnology to detect coronavirus from the patient sample and without the need for analysis in centralized clinical laboratories.

The novel technology with which this Spanish test is being developed -which is one of the projects funded by the European Commission for the study of the coronavirus-, it would make it possible to differentiate the coronavirus infection from the common flu infection. In addition, the device will be able to detect other types of coronavirus present in animals, in order to monitor and monitor a possible evolution of these types and thus prevent an outbreak such as the one that triggered the global pandemic.

“It also quantifies the viral load, which is always a relevant value”

The professor at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), Laura Lechuga.
The professor at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), Laura Lechuga.

It is not really a test itself, but rather a device that works with a technology very similar to those used by diabetics to measure their blood glucose. “It is a device that carries strips where, in this case, the patient’s saliva is placed; but the device itself helps you to make many measurements, you only have to change the strip,” she explains to 20minutos the professor at the Higher Center for Scientific Research (CSIC). What this “sophisticated” device does, therefore, is “measure the virus without ‘crushing it’, which is what PCR does.” That is to say, instead of measuring the proteins that remain loose after breaking the virus, it measures “the whole virus”, therefore, it facilitates totally specific results and avoids false positives that PCR can give when detecting other proteins.

“Another advantage is that it not only gives you a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but it also quantifies your viral load that, even if it is not related to the course of the disease, it is always a relevant value “, explains the researcher, stating that it can be a very useful piece of information for health professionals who want to monitor an infected patient.

How do you detect the virus?

The device, as Lechuga explains, works with the same technology that we have in mobile phones or other devices, through microchips. “Only, in our case, we circulate light buttons, instead of electrons as in conventional circuits “, bill.

What they do previously is anchor a virus-specific protein (spike protein S) to the surface of the device, which “traps” the virus; what makes the light that is “traveling” change speed and can be measured.

“We know how to be able to catch only the virus; everything else that is in the patient’s saliva we are able to avoid it”, highlights the teacher, adding that, in addition, the result is obtained in real time when obtaining the signal, which gives a numerical value on the screen.

Researcher from ICN2 is working on the development of the device.
Researcher from ICN2 is working on the development of the device.

A step towards the end of technological dependence

The device has a number of advantages, but there is one in particular that Laura Lechuga wanted to highlight: it is Spanish technology. The technological dependence of Spain, as he points out, is “brutal”, and it is an issue “that we are considering as something serious, because imagine that the pandemic would have been much worse; really, each country is dedicated to its citizens, right? so they reserve it for themselves first. “

So if Spain has the capacity, “Why not develop those technological capabilities or have them ready in case of next pandemics or possible problems that will surely come?” raises the scientist.

Pioneering technology

In Spain, there are other research groups that are also trying to make this type of device with other technologies, “but perhaps ours is more advanced,” says Lechuga, in the sense that it is a technology “unique”, “sophisticated”, internationally patented and with a “very high sensitivity”, that they have already tried with other applications.

“We have been working on this for many years. We have tested it with other microorganisms, in bacteria, with other types of proteins, indicative biomarkers (for example, the appearance of cancer), etc.. “That is to say, it is a technology that is already, so to speak, mature”, he asserts, assuring that there are other groups developing diagnostic technology, “but perhaps we are one of the few that actually make complete devices, with a very advanced prototype, already almost at a pre-commercial level “.

A much more accessible test

The devices, once they are ready to market, can be used in health centers, in emergencies, “and the possibility of using it in pharmacies could even be considered”, affirms the researcher, pointing out that then “laboratories or specialized technicians will no longer be needed, which is the problem we have with PCRs.” According to Lechuga, there is a lot of talk about mass screening, but she affirms that, later,. all the tests end up accumulating in the analysis labs “because we continue to have very small staff of technicians, and it is not enough”.

“Laboratories or specialized technicians will no longer be needed, which is the problem we have with PCRs”

Foresee that it may be ready “between December and January”, although they highlight that, as it is a research process, it can be a little slower; they have to validate with the patient samples and coordinate with their colleagues from the Hospital de Italia (with whom they are developing the project). In addition, once the tests give favorable results, “we will have to see the fastest route to commercialization”.

“When you have a prototype, no matter how well it works in the lab, You have to adapt it to make a commercial product and manufacture it by the thousands and millions. It is an important step “, explains the scientist, adding that, although her forecasts point to next year,” it is not so easy to bring it to the market. ”

They also plan to implant the device for general use. That is to say, that serves, to measure other coronaviruses or other pathogens. “The idea is to have national technology that can be used for more applications,” he concludes.