Stanford develops CRISPR 'lab on a chip' for detecting COVID-19

DNA helix forming inside a test tube
Using the CRISPR enzyme Cas12, a sibling of the highly celebrated CRISPR-Cas9, the test triggers a fluorescent molecular probe that causes samples to glow when genetic material derived from the coronavirus is found. (Getty Images)

Researchers at Stanford University have developed a CRISPR-based “lab on a chip” to detect COVID-19, and are working with automakers at Ford to develop their prototype into a market-ready product.

This could provide an automated, hand-held device designed to deliver a coronavirus test result anywhere within 30 minutes.

In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the test spotted active infections quickly and cheaply, using electric fields to purify fluids from a nasal swab sample and drive DNA-cutting reagents within the system’s tiny passages.

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"The microlab is a microfluidic chip just half the size of a credit card containing a complex network of channels smaller than the width of a human hair," said study senior author Juan Santiago, Stanford’s Charles Lee Powell Foundation Professor of mechanical engineering.

Using the CRISPR enzyme Cas12, a sibling of the highly celebrated CRISPR-Cas9, the test triggers a fluorescent molecular probe that causes samples to glow when genetic material derived from the coronavirus is found. 

RELATED: Stanford team deploys CRISPR gene editing to fight COVID-19

“It's also not reliant on antibodies like many tests, which only indicates if someone has had the disease, and not whether they are currently infected and therefore contagious," said graduate student Ashwin Ramachandran, the study's first author.

The researchers said the test’s approach could also be modified to spot the signs of other infections, by recalibrating the CRISPR enzyme for a different genetic marker.

"If we want to look for a different disease, we simply design the appropriate nucleic acid sequence on a computer and send it over email to a commercial maker of synthetic RNA,” said Ramachandran. “They mail back a vial with the molecule that completely reconfigures our assay for a new disease.”

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