Illustration of a biosensor detecting a targeted molecule and glowing. (Image: Ian Haydon)

Scientists have created a new way to detect the proteins that make up the pandemic coronavirus as well as antibodies against it. They designed protein-based biosensors that glow when mixed with components of the virus or specific COVID-19 antibodies. This could enable faster and more widespread testing in the near future.

To diagnose coronavirus infection today, most medical laboratories rely on a technique called RT-PCR, which amplifies genetic material from the virus so that it can be seen. This technique requires specialized staff and equipment. It also consumes lab supplies that are in high demand all over the world. Supply-chain shortfalls have slowed COVID-19 test results in the United States and beyond.

In an effort to directly detect coronavirus in patient samples without the need for genetic amplification, researchers used computers to design new biosensors. These protein-based devices recognize specific molecules on the surface of the virus, bind to them, then emit light through a biochemical reaction. Antibody testing can reveal whether a person has had COVID-19 in the past. It is being used to track the spread of the pandemic but it also requires complex laboratory supplies and equipment.

The same team of researchers also created biosensors that glow when mixed with COVID-19 antibodies. They showed that these sensors do not react to other antibodies that might also be in the blood including those that target other viruses. This sensitivity is important for avoiding false-positive test results.

Their next goal is to ensure the sensors can be used reliably in a diagnostic setting. Beyond COVID-19, the team also showed that similar biosensors could be designed to detect medically relevant human proteins such as Her2 (a biomarker and therapy target for some forms of breast cancer) and Bcl-2 (which has clinical significance in lymphoma and some other cancers), as well as a bacterial toxin and antibodies that target the hepatitis B virus.

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