Technology is being use in the forefront to fight for the control and prevention of the coronavirus that now has Greater China firmly in its grip. Early detection of people infected of the novel coronavirus has become an imminent challenge around the world as the epidemic continues to develop.
In Hong Kong, researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and The Polytechnic University of Hong Kong (PolyU) have developed an automated diagnostic machine that can pathogens for infectious respiratory diseases.
Detection in 40 minutes
A team of researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) recently invented the portable 2019-nCoV detection device. With the latest microfluidic chip technology, the device can detect the virus in just 40 minutes from sampling to testing, compared to the currently-used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology which takes between 1.5 to 3 hours.
PCR technology is a molecular biotechnology used to amplify specific DNA fragments for the extraction of viral RNA, and the speed of temperature change is the key that determines the efficiency of the DNA’s amplification process, meaning the faster the temperature rises, the shorter the device can come up with a test result.
Unlike conventional large-scale PCR devices which use semiconductor to heat up testing samples, the team led by Prof. WEN Weijia from HKUST’s Department of Physics developed a novel silicon-based micro-heater module for the purpose. The micro-heater, which has lower thermal mass and a better thermal conductivity, could speed up temperature rises to around 30℃ per second from an average of 4-5℃ per second in conventional PCR devices, greatly reducing the detection time.
The detection device uses standard rapid testing tools such as those used for influenza: a quick screen is used to take a sample of the nasal cavity, which is then put into the analyser to determine the result. Measuring just 33cm long, 32cm wide and 16cm high, the equipment set is light and portable, which is suitable for rapid on-site testing in places such as centres for disease control and prevention, customs, entry-exit inspection and quarantine departments, as well as nursing homes for the elderly. Each device is equipped with a microfluidic portable PCR analyser, a pre-processing instrument, a bioassay chip and the novel coronavirus nucleic acid detection kits. It can test up to 8 samples simultaneously.
Leveraging on Shenzhen Shineway Technology – a biotechnology startup company co-founded by Prof. Wen and his doctoral graduate Dr. GAO Yibo, the team started this research immediately after obtaining the new coronavirus sequence on January 20 and came up with the testing kit within a week.
The new device is already in use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, while two more sets were being delivered to the CDCP in Hubei and Nansha. The device has obtained international CE certification (EU standard) and is qualified for export to all European Union (EU) countries as well as Hong Kong.
Detect up to 40 pathogens in one single test
Similarly, the researchers from PolyU have created what claims to be the world's most comprehensive automated multiplex diagnostic system, which includes a fully automated machine and a multiplex full-screening panel for the point-of-care genetic testing (POCT) of respiratory infectious diseases, including the 2019-nCoV.
"Early and accurate detection of pathogens could contribute to effective and efficient disease control and management, and prevent spreading of any contagious pathogens. It benefits the patients as well because timely therapy can then be applied to prevent complications. The existing challenge is that we lack full panel POCT technologies for early and on-site diagnosis, which should ideally be capable of differentiating between different pathogens at the same time. This newly-developed system could be a practical solution," said PolyU Professor Terence Lau Lok-ting, director of Innovation and Technology Development and adjunct professor at the Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology.
Professor Lau has overseen this latest project with the support of HKU Professor Yuen Kwok-yung. Through collaborative efforts, their team has spent the past four years to develop the device. The research team has received indispensable support from a local biotechnology company Avalon Biomedical Management for this project.
In the past year, the team has optimised it and conducted trials on different clinical samples. In the midst of the 2019-nCoV outbreak, the team has also conducted tests on clinical samples using the device.
In one single test and within approximately one hour, the device can identify 30 to 40 pathogens including seasonal influenza viruses, such as influenza A subtypes H1, H2 and H3, avian influenza viruses H5, H7 and H9, human respiratory syncytial virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and 2019-nCoV.
"This fully automated, quantitative rapid diagnostic platform possesses a proprietary technology which overcomes limitations of existing technologies by ensuring sensitivity – and hence significantly enhancing the reliability of test results. Most importantly, our innovation can substantially reduce the cost of the microfluidic cartridge manufacturing thus making it feasible for wide adoption. It is ready for mass-scale production," said Professor Lau.
Leveraging the current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, the system is fully automated from sample nucleic acid extraction and amplification, to signal detection and analysis. The System adopts patent-pending microfluidic and biochemical technologies that achieve ultra-sensitive detection (down to 5 gene copies) and simultaneous differentiation of various pathogens with extremely high specificity. It is also user-friendly, with manual handling not being required throughout the testing process.
"The device's versatility and capability will provide for comprehensive monitoring during disease outbreaks or routine surveillance,” said Professor Yuen. “It will become a crucial technology for ensuring the effective control of infectious diseases, medical diagnosis, and treatment."
Smart wristbands monitor potential
Meanwhile the Hong Kong Government has deployed smart wristbands to monitor city residents quarantined inside their homes. The government distributed a total of 500 smart wristbands initially, with an additional 1,000 to be produced in the coming days, if needed.
Government Chief Information Officer Victor Lam explained how the smart device works, saying the wristbands are used in conjunction with smartphones and given to people who had been to Wuhan in the past 14 days and need to quarantine at home as a result.
“This smart wristband will work together with the smartphone. So, a signal will be sent, basically exchanged, between the smartphone and the smart wristband.”
Lam said that the smart technology is designed to send an alert if quarantined individuals attempt to leave their homes.
“If the smartphone is disconnected, then an alert will be immediately sent to the Department of Health and Police for follow up,” he added. “And if the wristband is broken, an alert will also be immediately sent to the Department of Health and Police for follow. So, they work as a pair basically.”