At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul Yager, professor of bioengineering, knew a rapid and accurate test would be needed to screen patients for the new coronavirus. He immediately set to work adapting his point-of-care testing research to developing an at-home test for the new virus.
Since 2011, his lab has been developing compact, low-cost screening tests that can detect illnesses such as flu, dengue fever and HIV, and can be used by anyone, anywhere. The Yager lab’s technology uses nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT) coupled with microfluidic devices to detect fragments of a pathogen’s genetic material in under 20 minutes. It offers a simpler and faster alternative to traditional gene-based testing, which requires a complicated lab process that takes a few hours to get reliable results.
Now, the Yager lab is applying its technology, called UbiNAAT, to COVID-19 tests, which could be used by untrained people in their homes as well as in health care facilities and low-resource settings around the world. The tests could also be used for screening at airports, workplaces, theaters and sporting events to identify carriers of the virus and limit its spread.
“Early detection allows both for early treatment and quarantining of pre-symptomatic individuals, and for identification of outbreak hot spots by local, state and national authorities,” Dr. Yager says. His team has developed a prototype of the first version of their product, which will use a nasal swab or a saliva sample to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They also plan to roll out a second version capable of detecting a complete respiratory panel at home. Their test is highly sensitive, instrument-free and disposable.
In April, the Yager lab received $100,000 from Fast Grants, part of the Emergent Ventures program based at George Mason University, to speed advancement of their SARS-CoV-2 test. Dr. Yager and colleagues have formed a company, UbiDx, or Ubiquitous Diagnostics, to commercialize the test.
Dr. Yager and UbiDx also have applied to the National Institute of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative announced April 29, in which he hopes his technology will compete in a “Shark Tank”-like rapid selection process. The NIH will award shares up to $500 million, a portion of its $1.5 billion federal stimulus funding, to the testing technology candidates with the best odds of success. The goal is to make millions of accurate and easy-to-use tests per week available to all Americans by the late summer or fall 2020, according to the NIH.
Easy, fast and accurate