UMass Boston engineering professor has developed procedure that could help with COVID-19 diagnostics

Testing for COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus, is critical given the current global pandemic. UMass Boston Associate Professor of Engineering Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli specializes in paper-based tests that use biomarkers to test for emerging diseases. She developed a procedure within weeks that she says could help with COVID-19 diagnostics.

“We have a procedure that you can use for any disease, and what we’re trying to do now is adapt it to use it to detect COVID-19,” Hamad-Schifferli said. “A lot of people are wondering around like, ‘I don’t know if I have it,’ and this could be a way to know as a precautionary step.”

Hamad-Schifferli is a visiting scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. She and her research collaborators, including Jose Gomez-Marquez of MIT’s Little Devices Lab, discovered about four years ago when Zika came about that you can take antibodies for a known disease to make a diagnostic test for an emerging disease.

“When there is a new outbreak, it takes time to make the antibodies needed in a point of care diagnostic, usually about one year. We came up with a way to use off-the-shelf reagents and can generate a test with existing stockpiles of antibodies within a few weeks. We also use the same principle to hack an existing commercial diagnostic test to detect something new,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

For their successful yellow fever test, they used dengue fever and Zika antibodies, as shown in the illustration above. For COVID-19, they’re using closely related antibodies.

“Obviously the landscape is changing dramatically right now and you know every half hour something new happens, but we think that this could be used as a test,” Hamad-Schifferli said. “The important thing is that the format of the test is something that you can reconfigure easily. So it’s not this self-contained thing. If you’re a clinic and you run out of reagents, you can sort of snap them together like Lego blocks and make a test set that’s modifiable on the spot.”

Hamad-Schifferli says they have a system that can generate the right viral reporters within three weeks. Once the tests are engineered, MIT has the capacity to make them. She and Gomez-Marquez are already in contact with clinics.

A $25,000 grant from UMass President Marty Meehan’s office and the Technology Development Fund in 2018 provided funding for Hamad-Schifferli’s work on emerging diseases. The patent-pending procedure is described in a paper currently available on bioRXiv as it undergoes peer review. Cristina Rodriguez-Quijada, a fourth-year PhD student in biomedical engineering, is a coauthor on the paper along with Hamad-Schifferli and Gomez-Marquez.