Innovative Genomics Institute founds diagnostic testing lab for COVID-19

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The Innovative Genomics Institute is a campus organization run by senior genomics scientist Stacia Wyman and bioengineering assistant professor Liana Lareau. The institution was promptly established in March 2020 toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, and UC Berkeley have founded a lab to process diagnostic tests in response to the COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, pandemic.

Campus molecular biology and biochemistry professor Jennifer Doudna held a meeting in response to the crisis to discuss possible solutions three weeks ago. Doudna, along with professor of molecular and cell biology, or MCB, Fyodor Urnov and MCB assistant professor Dirk Hockemeyer, leads the project, according to postdoctoral researcher Enrique Lin Shiao. Also working in the lab are Shiao and postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Hamilton.

As of press time, 800 volunteers have signed up to help with the project and are being trained. They will begin working once the diagnostic tests are validated. The virus they are testing is inactivated, meaning it loses the ability to infect and therefore reduces the risk of transmission, Shiao highlighted.

“Safety is one of the most important aspects of this,” Shiao said in an email. “So we are taking all possible measures including getting the appropriate protective gear and establishing safety protocols and training to ensure the safety of all volunteers.”

University Health Services, or UHS, has also played a role in lab processing and testing. It has partnered in consultations for these services and sent UHS lab staff to provide assistance to IGI, according to UHS spokesperson Tami Cate.

Funding for the lab has come from a combination of donations of equipment and capital. The amount of materials needed for the lab comes from several different places because of the large number of tests the lab is  processing, according to Shiao.

“Many of the machines we need have been donated by groups on campus or industry that are currently not operating because of the shelter in place,” Shiao said in the email.

In the course of three weeks, the lab has established itself by setting up, receiving validations for testing and beginning testing. For the diagnostic test, lab researchers are using an emergency use authorization-approved kit to validate their own diagnostics based on the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria to demonstrate the test’s reliability, according to Shiao.

With the help provided by UHS, testing will be expanded to symptomatic students and vulnerable staff on campus. According to Cate, starting early next week those who meet the criteria will be tested, with 100 tests being conducted per day. She added that details have not been finalized and are subject to change.

The IGI plans to start processing approximately 300 tests next week and increasing to 1,200 to 4,000 in the coming weeks, Shiao added.

“It’s been an incredible and really busy couple of weeks but we’re all grateful we can use our training to help in this situation,” Shiao said in the email.

Contact Shylie Ati at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shylieati.