Bonn Significantly more tests in less time and more accurate results: The new method should score with more effectiveness in the fight against the virus. Researchers hope for rapid international approval.
The joy about currently low case numbers in terms of Corona diseases has also reached a Bonn returnee on the Venusberg. "Like everyone else, I am happy and relieved about the latest development," says Professor Jonathan Schmid-Burgk. In 2020, he accepted a call to the Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology at the University Hospital - for him, a return to the city he has known since his student days, where he has spent the past 15 months working under high pressure on a method that can simultaneously test thousands of samples for the Sars Cov-2 virus. Together with his co-developers Kerstin Ludwig and Ricarda Schmithausen, he is now seeking international approval for the novel test. "As good as the developments are with increasing vaccination protection - we should be prepared," says Schmid-Burgk.
Preparation - by which the 35-year-old, whose job involves tracing the tricky interplay between genes and the immune system, means planning for a possible next wave of corona. In the Bonn development case, this is done by mass testing using a method called LAMP-Seq, which is said to be up to 100 times more sensitive than current rapid antigen tests and almost as sensitive and accurate as the common qPCR test.
The freshly presented method marks the preliminary culmination of a research journey that began for Schmid-Burgk when he returned from the U.S. and was fueled by a chance professional relationship: "Kerstin Ludwig and I were simultaneously exploring the idea of a mass test, and our medical director Wolfgang Holzgreve then brought us together."
Thousands of tests in one run
So it is thanks in part to the boss that the molecular biologist and the human geneticist embarked on the path to development together. "Technically, the new test procedure is based on methods that have long been established," says Ludwig. Laboratory robots and so-called sequencing devices from biomedicine are used, which can examine a thousandfold number of individual samples at one go. "The equipment is standard in university hospitals and medical laboratories, where all kinds of samples are examined. The expense of technical infrastructure is eliminated. Everything is already there to test in large numbers in a short time."
For the Bonn researchers, the precise ability to determine individual positive cases from a huge number of samples is one of the major advantages of their method. "Each individual sample is given a kind of house number in the form of a molecular bar code. This code is still individually recognizable even when the sample is brought together with thousands of others for a pool test," Ludwig says. The so-called pool tests have become common procedures at schools or in companies. In these tests, individual swabs from groups are collected in a container, thus forming a pool. "In our procedure, retesting of the entire pool becomes unnecessary in case of a single positive result." For the research team, the scenario in the event of a new Corona wave would be, "Evaluate more samples in less time to detect and interrupt infection chains more quickly," Schmid-Burgk says. The LAMP-Seq method is designed to detect not only corona infections with the virus of origin, but also those with novel mutants such as the delta variant.
20000 individual tests for a good result
On the way to the current status of a broadly tested method that is scientifically and technically considered durable, the developers overcame many hurdles: "It started with the procurement of swabs in order to obtain representative results. We started among colleagues and finally collected a total of 20,000 individual samples within our own swab center," says Schmid-Burgk. "We moved on a logistical level that was new to us," Ludwig adds.
For approval, which would make it possible to use the system in locations with many regular encounters of recordable groups, the main task now for those responsible is to find partners - whether these come from academia or the private sector is currently being examined. One conceivable scenario could be widespread use at schools in Bonn. "Technically, we could start immediately," says Jonathan Schmid-Burgk. "You have to monitor the demand, and of course that stands and falls with the developments in the infection figures." The Bonn researchers would be prepared.
Original text: Alexander Barth
Translation: Mareike Graepel