Health Tech Startups: Singapore Innovators Develop New Onsite Highly Accurate Portable COVID-19 Diagnostic System With Results In An Hour
Health Tech Startups
: A team of National University Of Singapore (NUS) researchers have developed a portable COVID-19 micro-PCR diagnostic system called Epidax that enables rapid and accurate on-site screening of infectious diseases and significantly reduces the time required to analyze patient samples. With this new innovation COVID-19 screening can soon be conducted directly at various testing stations, and patients can get their test results in about an hour from the time they get a nasal swab
Credit: NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology
The new diagnostic platform is also extremely sensitive compared to existing diagnostic platforms and can detect up to 10 copies of the virus per microliter hence making it extremely accurate.
PCR or Polymerase chain reaction test that is currently being used for COVID-19 diagnosis has to be carried out in specialized testing facilities, and takes a few hours or a few days for results to be made known.
The 10-member team from the NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthtech), led by the institute’s Director Professor Dr Lim Chwee Teck, has developed a novel diagnostic system from scratch in a record time of two months. A project of this scale would typically take at least one to two years to complete.
Professor Lim told Thailand Medical News, “The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented health, economic and social challenges around the world. Until a vaccine against the coronavirus becomes available, ramping up testing is a critical first step to curb the spread of the disease and to provide appropriate medical care for those tested positive. However, these tests take time and come at a high cost in terms of manpower and equipment. If we can quickly detect the coronavirus, we can better contain it. Epidax provides an effective solution to address these limitations.”
Credit: National University of Singapore
The new system is portable and easy to use. Epidax, which is a microfluidics-based PCR diagnostic system, is about less the size of a toaster and is extremely portable. It can be deployed quickly and easily on-site for virus infection screening.
At present, nasal swab samples are first collected at a clinic or testing site, and sent to a laboratory for processing to extract the RNA, before the PCR test is conducted.
The new Epidax system uses a specially designed microfluidic chip that comprises micro-channels where samples are processed. By employing microfluidic technology, the system is able to process a smaller amount of sample for quicker detection of COVID-19 infection. Using a reagent which enables both RNA extraction and amplification on the chip, the PCR test can be performed right after a nasal swab sample is collected, thus bypassing the intermediate step of
RNA extraction. All these features significantly minimize sample handling and shorten the test and waiting time, so patients can get their test results in about an hour.
Professor Lim added, “We have designed the Epidax system to be very easy to use. The lab technician operating the system only needs to pipette the sample and reagent into the microfluidic chip and load it into the Epidax system for processing. These simple steps can be easily executed within 5 minutes.”
The research team from NUS validated the Epidax system against existing PCR systems, and found that the Epidax system has the same or even higher sensitivity than some of the current PCR systems. In fact, the sensitivity of detection can achieve at least 10 copies of RNA per microliter of sample. The team is currently improving the limit of detection, aiming to reach 1 copy of RNA per microliter of sample.
The NUS researchers explained “The standard PCR diagnostic test is currently the gold standard test conducted in a centralised laboratory to identify SARS-CoV-2 viral infection. Our Epidax system is a unique microfluidic chip-based diagnostic system that can conduct PCR tests on-site for the rapid screening of infection, whether it is at a local clinic, a nursing home or the airport. In this way, we can quickly identify infected individuals and take swift action to prevent transmission.”
The team said that the development of Epidax was not without challenges. “The research was carried out during the circuit breaker period. We had to overcome various constraints, such as supply chain disruption, shortage of consumables and components, as well as restrictions on access and movement due to the additional safety measures that had to be put in place. However, the team persevered to overcome all odds to complete the project, demonstrating resourcefulness and amazing teamwork,” said Dr Nguyen Quoc Mai Phuong, who is the co-project leader.
The Singapore team has filed a patent for this invention, and is in talks with a medical technology company to commercialize this technology.
“Moving forward, we are keen to further develop our portable micro-PCR diagnostic system that can even be deployed at home. For example, it can resemble a small capsule coffee machine: portable, affordable, easy to use, and we can insert different ’capsules’ to test for a variety of diseases. With the current advances in science and technology, I believe this is highly achievable in the near future,” added Professor Lim.
The team is also planning to get the new diagnostic platform approved by the US FDA and EU regulatory bodies.
The highly innovative Epidax system is one of the many health tech innovations developed by NUS to tackle the current global pandemic. Since the start of the crisis, the University has been proactively participating in the fight against COVID-19 on different fronts, with research ranging from rapid diagnostics to case connections and vaccine development, as well as harnessing information and technology solutions to model public health, fight false rumours online and more.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought a lot of new interesting health-tech innovations in countries from ranging from the US, Canada, Brazil, India, UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Unfortunately in Thailand, the healthcare and innovation sector is only full of ‘hot-air’ with nothing substantial to show for. Some of the reasons for these is the prevalence of nepotism, incompetency, ego and lack of English language competency in many of the entities responsible for medical startups, health tech and innovation. Also many of its so called innovations are merely copied and adapted concepts or projects taken from elsewhere. Hopefully there will be some changes soon and some of these entities will see their hopeless heads and staff of these various entities changed or removed for good.
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