15 June 2020

New grant to develop accurate and fast paper test for COVID-19

Novel research to develop a faster and more accurate paper test has attracted funding from the WA Health Department and Health Translation Network COVID-19 Research Grants Program.

Developing the first accurate, rapid, and user friendly point of care paper test to detect COVID-19 in Australia is one of the goals of this exciting research project. In addition to developing a high-sensitivity detection assay, the project sets out to explore the potential for developing a novel anti-COVID-19 therapeutic in the form of a molecular throat spray.

This project is the result of ongoing discussion between researchers at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Innovative Therapeutics (CMMIT) at, Murdoch University (Associate Professor Rakesh Veedu, Dr Tao Wang and Professor Sue Fletcher), the Clinical Research Head of South Metropolitan Health Service, practising clinicians at Fiona Stanley Hospital (Professor Merilee Needham and Dr Warren Pavey), and Dr Ann Choong from the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI).

Associate Professor Veedu, who leads the project, is a Perron Institute McCusker Associate Professor and head of Nucleic Acid Therapeutics Research at CMMIT.

“The key to COVID-19 control is to stop virus transmission by precisely identifying and isolating virus carriers”, Associate Professor Veedu said. “This has created a massive demand for high-throughput, accurate virus detection techniques.

“Current detection of the COVID-19 virus relies mainly on analysing virus nucleic acids through a commonly used molecular process known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).

“Although this represents the gold standard, it requires sophisticated facilities, highly trained people and lengthy time for analysis. This limits its application for large-scale screening, especially in under-resourced areas.

“In contrast, an antibody paper assay currently in use as an alternative can be completed in minutes, with no additional instrumentation but it is much less accurate, with a false negative rate of up to 30 per cent in detecting COVID-19 induced antibodies in blood plasma.

“This means 30 per cent of virus carriers tested via the current antibody paper assay method cannot be identified. Antibodies initiated by the virus take 4-14 days to develop. There are also some patients who do not have detectable antibodies even weeks after infection.”

Assisted by the recently announced grant (one of a select few sharing a total of $1.9 million), Associate Professor Veedu and his team have risen to the challenge of potentially fast-tracking the development of a safer therapeutic. The team is developing a novel “molecular plug” called an aptamer for directly detecting SARS-CoV-2 virus in patient swabs, using a paper-based test. Aptamers are short, single-stranded DNA or RNA molecules that can selectively bind to a specific target due to their 3D shape. In this case, the plug binds specifically to the viral spike protein and blocks the entry of the virus into human cells.

Compared with antibodies, aptamers have several advantages including that they are very easy to produce at low cost, and to store, making them easily accessible at point of care and in remote locations.

In partnership with Professor Needham and Dr Pavey at Fiona Stanley Hospital, the efficacy of the developed aptamer test strips will be evaluated and compared with current approaches.

“We will also evaluate the scope of the anti-spike protein aptamer as a drug molecule towards the treatment of COVID-19, Associate Professor Veedu said. “Our team sees significant potential in this research for both diagnosis and treatment to tackle COVID-19.”

The team is aiming to make the test available in nine months.

The Department of Health, with the Western Australian Health Translation Network has established the COVID-19 Research Grants Program to fund high-quality COVID-19 related research projects that have the potential to be translated into improved policy and/or practice across the WA public health system.

The funding program aims to provide the following benefits:

  • fund COVID-19 research of direct significance to the WA public health system and the WA community
  • support the attraction of COVID-19 related clinical trials into WA
  • provide an avenue to access or leverage national or international funding related to COVID-19, including via National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) funding
  • facilitate the knowledge creation and translation of research findings into evidence-based medical and health policy and practice related to COVID-19.

L-R: Dr Tao Wang and A/Prof Rakesh Veedu.

Photo credit: Murdoch University