FEB 05, 2020 7:08 AM PST

A new CRISPR-based test for coronavirus infections

WRITTEN BY: Tara Fernandes


A surge in infections has caused panic surrounding the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak to reach a fever pitch. Despite being only moderately infective, 2019-nCoV infection remains a serious public health concern among many communities, highlighted by the looming global surgical mask shortage. As of the end of last month, the World Health Organization has confirmed 7818 cases of 2019-nCoV infections worldwide.



Symptoms include a runny nose, cough and a general feeling of being unwell — all classic features of the relatively harmless common cold. How then do clinicians identify the coronavirus as the offending pathogen in certain patients?

The first step is to collect a swab or mucus sample from the respiratory tract, along with a blood sample. These are then shipped to a diagnostic laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. In some of the earlier 2019-nCoV cases, metagenomic sequencing was used: a high-throughput sequencing method that allows for the clinical diagnosis of genes originating from many organisms present in a complex biological sample.

A sharp hike in the number of suspected cases forced health organizations to seek faster, simpler and more cost-effective alternatives to pinpoint true 2019-nCoV cases. Academics, public-sector groups and biotechnology companies quickly banded together to develop a suite of genetic screening assays, including one that uses a more widely-available polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methodology. While PCRs are performed routinely in diagnostic labs, the whole process can still take over six hours to complete.

The South San Francisco-based company, Mammoth Biosciences, is bringing a revolutionary new molecular diagnostic tool to the table: CRISPR. Their CRISPR-powered DETECTR™ platform boasts speedy, accurate and programmable testing across multiple diseases. All this in an instrument-free format, completely cutting out the need for centralized testing facilities.

Mammoth recently hauled in a $45 million Series B funding injection to boost the commercialization of this molecular diagnostic platform. Co-founded by CRISPR pioneer, Jennifer Doudna, Mammoth has secured over $70 million in funding since its inception in 2017.

The CRISPR-based technology tracks down specific viral genetic markers, indicating the presence of coronavirus in a patient sample with an uncomplicated color-changing dip test. The whole process is up to six times faster than conventional diagnostic techniques and could be easily performed in emergency rooms or doctors' offices.

In theory, the DETECTR™ test could be rolled out in a matter of weeks. The biggest bottleneck is the lack of human samples to more thoroughly validate the platform and ensure its accuracy in a clinical setting. 

Commenting on the potential of the CRISPR diagnostic, Professor of Laboratory Medicine and Mammoth collaborator, Charles Chiu, said, “There are very few, if any, technologies that you could use that would have the same speed, turnaround, and accuracy.”



Sources: Forbes, Mammoth Biosciences, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
Interested in health technology and innovation.
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