Your Smartphone Camera Could Diagnose COVID

Gene editing tech goes mobile

Key Takeaways

  • A new test for the virus that causes COVID-19 could make its way to smartphones.
  • Researchers say the new test is quicker than others on the market and could help keep the pandemic under control.
  • The test uses CRISPR gene-editing technology.
Crispr (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) sequence with scissors, illustration.
ANDRZEJ WOKCICKI / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBARY /Getty Images

Checking whether you have COVID-19 could soon be as simple as taking a picture with your smartphone. That’s the idea behind new research showing that a gene editing-based test for the virus can provide accurate results in under 30 minutes.

Long waits for COVID-19 testing have slowed down the response to the pandemic. Researchers used the new gene-editing technology, called CRISPR, to make a system that could eventually detect coronaviruses and other diseases quickly and easily, according to a recent, peer-reviewed study published in the journal, Cell

"We hope to provide a clip-on to mobile phones that allows the use of a single step cartridge to measure SARS-CoV-2 RNA at home," Melanie Ott, MD, PhD, director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology and one of the leaders of the study, said in an email interview.

"We hope to still be of help in this pandemic," she added, also saying that the technology could be available to the public "in the next few months."

Faster Than Your Average PCR

Most COVID-19 tests use PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction, which searches for pieces of the SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in a sample. The PCR tests isolate the virus’s RNA and then change it into DNA to copy the DNA segments. The new diagnostic test uses the CRISPR Cas13a protein, which binds and dices RNA segments. This way, DNA conversion isn’t needed, and it cuts the analysis time.

"The eventual goal is to have a personal device, like a mobile phone, that is able to detect a range of different viral infections..."

"CRISPR is at the heart of the technology as we are using the CRISPR enzyme Cas13a to directly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a sample," Ott said. "Cas13a is 'guided' with a piece of RNA complementary to the SARS-CoV-2 genome and gets activated when SARS-CoV-2 is present in the sample. When activated, it cleaves a reporter, and the reaction starts to fluoresce, the signal read by the mobile phone device."

Unlike most other tests on the market, the CRISPR test also estimates viral load or the number of virus particles in a sample. This method can help doctors monitor the infection’s progress and evaluate how contagious a patient might be.

"Monitoring the course of a patient’s infection could help health care professionals estimate the stage of infection and predict, in real-time, how long is likely needed for recovery and how long the individual should quarantine," Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley and one of the leaders of the study, said in a news release

New Test Could Let Businesses Open Sooner

The new test could be instrumental in slowing the course of the virus, observers say. 

"I think it's a very exciting development for the U.S. economy if they are able to prove that the results are close to 100% accurate," Jennifer Gumer, partner at CGL LLP and an adjunct professor of law and bioethics at Loyola Marymount University.

Someone working at home wearing a protective face mask.
Drazen / Getty Images

"This device has the potential to allow for businesses to confidently open their doors—and keep them open—as they would be able to know with certainty that their employees are all negative for the virus. I believe that rapid testing is going to be the fastest way back to any semblance of normalcy (unless the vaccine gets us to herd immunity sooner, which could be)."

Researchers developed the CRISPR-based test specifically for SARS-CoV-2, but it could be modified to detect many other diseases, including the flu. The team is currently working on packaging the test into a device made available at clinics and one day in people’s homes.

"The eventual goal is to have a personal device, like a mobile phone, that is able to detect a range of different viral infections and quickly determine whether you have a common cold or SARS-Cov-2 or influenza," Fletcher said. "That possibility now exists, and further collaboration between engineers, biologists, and clinicians is needed to make that a reality."

The COVID-19 test is one of the latest in a series of dramatic announcements about new medical technology that leverages the power of smartphones to advance healthcare. A quick and easy coronavirus test on my iPhone is just what the doctor ordered.

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