CRISPR test for COVID-19 promises rapid results

Nvidia's gene sequencing tool is now free to COVID-19 researchers.
Image: Nvidia

Testing for COVID-19 has been a highly-discussed subject as the pandemic continues to progress. While cases in many parts of the United States are starting to decrease, the only way to effectively re-open the world is to provide adequate testing.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco have partnered with a biotech firm called Mammoth Biosciences to pioneer a CRISPR-based test that provides rapid results. The researchers say that it can detect a positive sample in as little as 40 minutes.

New Testing Method

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 has been a hot topic since the virus first appeared. As states move towards reopening, it will become even more important. However, it’s impossible to stop the spread of a disease without first knowing who has it.

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As such, countless companies are working on different forms of testing that provide quick, accurate results.

The new CRISPR-based test is the first to use the genetic tool more commonly associated with genetic modification. A paper detailing the process was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Thursday. The system, known as Detectr, is capable of reducing test wait times from about five hours to just 40 minutes.

CRISPR is such a useful tool because it can be guided to a precise target on a strand of DNA. Typically, it is then used to cut out and replace a certain portion of the DNA to alter it. For the COVID-19 test, things are done a bit differently.

Since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is an RNA-based virus, the researchers were able to target it with the CRISPR system. If the enzyme detects the coronavirus, it returns a positive result with a lateral flow strip. In other words, a device that shows a line to indicate a positive result—like a pregnancy test.

In an early trial, Detectr was used to analyze 40 samples that were previously confirmed positive by the CDC. The system correctly identified 38 positives while only missing two. It’s worth noting that it didn’t incorrectly flag any negative tests as positive.

Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist from the Australian National University in Canberra, says, “The first results… look good and encouraging. Overall, it has a potential.”

Speed is Everything

As states prepare to ramp up testing, speed will become more important. Detectr has a distinct advantage over the current testing method being used by the CDC. That system requires a bulky, expensive machine and takes several hours. By contrast, Detectr runs in a machine about the size of a calculator.

Still, it isn’t the fastest method out there. Medical device maker Abbott released a test kit for its ID NOW machines that can run in as little as 15 minutes.

Nonetheless, having access to another fast form of testing is still a good thing. Mammoth is currently working to obtain FDA approval for the CRISPR method via the agency’s Emergency Use Authorization process. In the days to come, it could hit the front lines of COVID-19 testing and play a role in society’s return to normalcy.


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