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Working on COVID-19 diagnostics during lockdown

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The team at i-sense have been working collaboratively across institutions to develop point-of-care diagnostic tests for COVID-19. When the UK went into lockdown in mid-March, a small group of researchers were given special access to i-sense labs in London and quickly implemented appropriate measures to ensure they could continue this important work safely.

Throughout lockdown, Dr Ben Miller and Dounia Cherkaoui have been working at Prof Rachel McKendry’s i-sense lab based at the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN), UCL, while Dr Leah Frenette and Dr Marta Broto Aviles have been working in Prof Molly Stevens’ lab at Imperial College London, along with a team of over 25 Stevens group researchers who volunteered to assist the efforts in lab and remotely. The team have been adapting existing i-sense diagnostic technologies to be suitable for COVID-19. Several projects have been ongoing including ultrasensitive lateral flow based assays and the development of a rapid, isothermal and ultrasensitive platform to detect the virus without the need of qPCR.

Dr Marta Broto Aviles has been the senior postdoc in Prof Stevens' team helping coordinate the day-to-day research of the multidisciplinary team with strong support from the Stevens group's translational team led by Dr Paresh Parmar. Dr Leah Frenette has been working on optimising the technology for its final format including nanoparticle processing, device format and assembly, and signal amplification. The ultrasensitive test developed will dramatically reduce the analysis time of a viral test from one day in a centralised laboratory to 15 minutes anywhere. The team hopes to develop a cheaper, more accessible and more accurate diagnostic test compared to those already available.    

Dounia Cherkaoui, an i-sense PhD student, has been researching alternative testing assays for the new virus. This work was motivated by the worldwide shortage in qPCR instruments and reagents that considerably slowed down the response and hurdled the ‘test, trace, isolate’ strategy that was urged by the World Health Organization. Dr Ben Miller has been printing different SAR-CoV-2 antibodies on lateral flow strips for incorporation into the assay being developed by the group at Imperial; as well as working on improving the sensitivity of lateral flow antigen testing with both existing and novel nanoparticle technologies.  

Outside of lab-based research, i-sense members have been working on digital technologies for surveillance of the outbreak. Dr Bill Lampos and Prof Ingemar Cox at UCL Computer Science have developed machine learning models that use Google search data to understand the prevalence of disease in England, and outcomes from this are given to Public Health England on a weekly basis.

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