Biomolecular engineer Nader Pourmand is evaluating the use of a novel nanosensor to provide rapid, low-cost, and accurate serology tests for coronavirus antibodies

May 14, 2020 | Tim Stephens | UCSC

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are testing a novel nanosensor technology that could provide rapid, low-cost serology tests with high sensitivity for detecting and quantifying antibodies to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The detection of antibodies to the virus in a blood sample indicates that a person has been infected and developed an immune response. Whereas diagnostic tests for the virus itself identify active infections, serology tests can identify people who have already been infected and have presumably developed some level of immunity (although many uncertainties remain about immunity to the novel coronavirus). Serology tests are important for quantifying the actual number of cases of COVID-19 that have occurred, including asymptomatic cases and those who have recovered.

Nader Pourmand, professor of biomolecular engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, is evaluating a serology testing platform derived from nanopipette technology developed in his lab. He has received a $75,000 grant from the COVID Catalyst fund established at UC Berkeley to provide rapid funding for COVID-19 research at the institutions within the Bay Area Virus Network.

An important part of this is not only the funding, but also having access to serology samples from UCSF for evaluating our technology,” Pourmand said.

Two main types of COVID-19 serology tests are currently available—laboratory tests that can quantify the level of antibodies in the blood (using a technique called ELISA), and rapid tests that indicate the presence or absence of antibodies and use a small, portable platform (called lateral flow assays). Reports of inaccurate results from some of the rapid tests on the market have raised questions about how useful they are. In addition, the rapid tests do not measure the level of antibodies, which is valuable information for evaluating immune responses, identifying potential plasma donors, and tracking disease progression, Pourmand said.

Novel technology

The new nanosensor technology offers the potential to rapidly detect and quantify antibodies to the coronavirus in a finger-prick blood sample in less than a minute, using disposable cartridges and a relatively inexpensive ($100) reader that could be available at pharmacies, clinics, and other points of care.

The cartridges use nanosensor chips designed by Pinpoint Science, which has licensed from UCSC several patents for Pourmand’s nanopipette technology. (Pourmand is chief scientist of Pinpoint Science.) Pourmand’s lab originally developed the nanopipette technology for nondestructive, single-cell analysis of living cells, but the glass nanopipettes are impractical for large-scale manufacturing. Pinpoint Science developed a four-channel nanosensor chip which is fabricated by the semiconductor company Analog Devices.

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