Artificial glycan receptor key to rapid test for Covid-19

A lateral flow device that uses an artificial glycan receptor is being readied to provide rapid point-of-care diagnosis of Covid-19.

glycan receptor
Protype tester image (Image: Iceni Diagnostics/Manchester University)

The simple-to-use testing device has the potential to be used by frontline NHS staff allowing doctors and nurses to easily test at home to see if they have COVID-19 symptoms or not before going to work. Similarly, communities associated with a building or geographical location which require increased safeguarding - hospitals, care homes or workplaces - could quickly test visitors.

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Professor Rob Field is Co-founder and CEO of Norwich-based spin-out company Iceni Diagnostics, which is working with his team of biotech researchers at Manchester University on getting the new test ready and officially validated ready for autumn and the onset of flu season, a period in which people with flu can have similar symptoms to those with Covid-19.

In a statement, Prof Field said: “Our existing prototype product for influenza can detect the virus in less than 20 minutes and could be adapted to identify other pathogens such as coronavirus.

“Respiratory viruses invade the body through cells in the airways and lungs. These cells are covered in a coat of sugar chains, known as glycans, which are used for normal function of human tissues. Viruses can utilise these glycans as part of the infection process.”

This process can also be used in reverse to identify the virus in saliva or nasal fluids, said Professor Field, whose company has developed this diagnostic technique using an artificial glycan receptor to capture a virus.

Professor Field said: “Vaccine development, validation, safety-testing, manufacture, regulatory approval and deployment is a time-consuming process. A low-cost, easy to use screening test that can be performed at the point-of-care would be an ideal way to limit initial disease transmission in the community and at points of entry to hospitals, or at national borders, for instance.

“Current COVID-19 tests are largely based on PCR [polymerase chain reaction] that requires a laboratory setting for analysis and relies on prior knowledge of the viral genetic code. This code can change as the virus evolves, potentially limiting the effectiveness of the test.

“The Iceni Diagnostics approach uses glycan recognition, which is unaffected by seasonal variation in the genetic code, and can be offered as a handheld home or field-based test.”

Professor Field and his team have developed prototype products that can specifically detect pathogens such as Norovirus and different strains of influenza in under 20 minutes. The team based at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) will be working with Iceni Diagnostics to further develop these tests in the coming months.

The hand-held device currently under development uses lateral flow to give a simple yes/no answer. It requires no refrigeration and no training.

“The current Iceni Diagnostics products detect a single virus. However, the next generation of diagnostics will enable the detection and discrimination of a series of pathogens that give rise to similar symptoms,” said Prof Field. “This would enable, for example, a distinction between flu and COVID-19 in a single sample which increases the versatility and robustness of the diagnosis. Additionally, the way the virus interacts with its glycan receptor makes it seasonally consistent, so, even if the virus genetic code mutates, it will still be detected – meaning the Iceni Diagnostics’ test should remain effective in the longer term.”