A rapid, accurate way to test for COVID-19 infection would be a big step in overcoming the virus’ dominance in our society. In an article published this time, Dr Lab on a chip, Japanese researchers have developed a promising solution: a novel platform that combines nanopore technology with artificial intelligence.
What is a nanopore? A nanopore is a tiny hole in a thin layer, often a silicon wafer. A nanopore can range from a few nanometers to hundreds of nanometers in diameter -; A scale small enough to work with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Our technology involves watching changes in electrical current as different materials pass through tiny nanopores. Using artificial intelligence, we can understand the structure, volume and surface charge of various substances, including viruses.”
Kaoru Murakami, lead author of the study
SARS-CoV-2 is common to many other RNA viruses in that it constantly mutates, causing changes in the virus’s characteristics – including infection rates and symptoms. A notorious mutation of the virus, the Omicron variant, was first identified in November 2021 and is known for its ability to spread rapidly. One of the biggest challenges for COVID-19 testing so far has been accurately determining the presence or absence of newly mutated variants in a sample.
Thus, the researchers wanted to be the first to show that their platform could distinguish between six different variants of SARS-CoV-2. Next, they investigated whether their platform could detect SARS-CoV-2 strains in 241 saliva samples collected from 132 people infected with SARS-CoV-2 and 109 people infected with it. The platform was not only able to distinguish between SARS-CoV-2 variants, but it was also able to determine the presence of the Omicron variant 100% of the time.
The researchers speculate that their AI-powered platform is detecting differences in the so-called spike protein (also called S-protein) that coats the surface of coronaviruses. These proteins, which tend to change very rapidly, bind to host cell receptors and play an important role in the penetration of host cells.
Until now, the gold standard for SARS-CoV-2 detection is a method called RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction test). “Like RT-PCR, our AI-nanopore platform can detect coronaviruses with high sensitivity and specificity. However, a major advantage of our nanopore system is that it is much less expensive and has the potential to measure a given number of samples. period,” explained Masaki Murakami, senior author.
The benefits of this system are not specific to SARS-CoV-2; Other RNA viruses also have high mutation rates and so this platform can be used to detect viruses such as influenza. The new platform can even be quickly adapted to test for the next newly emerging infectious disease.
Murakami, K., etc. (2023). High-precision rapid testing of omicron SARS-CoV-2 variants in clinical samples using AI-nanopore. Lab on a chip. doi.org/10.1039/D3LC00572K.