The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded i-sense project adapted its tools, technology and practices to develop diagnostic tests and surveillance methods for COVID-19.
i-sense aims to identify outbreaks of infectious disease much earlier, helping patients gain faster access to care and protecting populations.
After the UK entered lockdown in mid-March 2020, a small group of i-sense researchers had special access to labs in London, to rapidly adapt tools and technologies to support the development of emergency diagnostics.
New tests for COVID-19
Dr Ben Miller and Dounia Cherkaoui were working at the McKendry i-sense lab at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, University College London, while Dr Leah Frenette and Dr Marta Broto Aviles worked in a lab at Imperial College London. They did this alongside more than 25 Stevens Group researchers who volunteered to assist efforts in the lab and remotely.
The team looked to adapt existing i-sense diagnostic technologies to be suitable for COVID-19.
Several projects were established, including ultrasensitive, lateral flow-based assays and the development of a rapid, isothermal and ultrasensitive platform to detect the virus without the need of quantitative polymerase chain reaction, known as qPCR.
Dr Frenette is optimising the technology for its final format, including nanoparticle processing, device format and assembly and signal amplification.
The ultrasensitive test 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 currently available.
Test, trace and isolate
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 urged by the World Health Organization.
Separately, Dr Miller printed different SAR-CoV-2 antibodies on lateral flow strips for incorporation into the assay being developed by the group at Imperial. He worked to improve the sensitivity of lateral flow antigen testing with existing and novel nanoparticle technologies.
Surveilling the outbreak
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 developed machine learning models that use Google search data to understand the prevalence of disease in England. Outcomes from this were given to Public Health England every week.
Last updated: 28 October 2020