UC Berkeley, UCSF researchers use robotics to expedite COVID-19 testing

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In an effort to speed up COVID-19 testing, researchers at UC Berkeley and UCSF are using robotics to test hundreds of samples every day.

Developed by the UC Berkeley and UCSF Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, the pop-up lab has a robot that takes patients’ samples brought to the lab and transfers them to plates with wells. Then, another robot runs a quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, test. Patients can get results as soon as the next day, according to IGI spokesperson Megan Hochstrasser.

“The approximate time from sample coming into the lab to having a result on the computer is about four hours,” Hochstrasser said. “Turnaround time has been about 24 hours — if you went into Tang at 4 p.m. and got swabbed, you could get a call from the doctor at 4 the next day.”

In mid-March, IGI researchers convened in a meeting to identify how the lab might help in the response to COVID-19. Hochstrasser noted that after identifying testing as the main gap in the scientific community’s response, IGI held discussions about setting up a diagnostic testing facility.

Because rapidly switching from academic research to handling patient samples required many more hands on deck, the lab put out a form online looking for volunteers to assist with the pop-up lab’s efforts. According to Hochstrasser, almost 800 people had signed up to help within a day and a half.

Three weeks later, the pop-up lab was up and running, testing hundreds of samples at a time.

“Imagine setting that up — a process that would normally take months to years — in a couple of weeks,” said IGI co-founder and UC Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna in a press release. “It’s really extraordinary and not something I’ve ever seen in my career.”

The pop-up lab’s main partnership is with the University Health Services Tang Center on campus, according to Hochstrasser. The University Health Services staff collects samples from staff and students if they are symptomatic and meet certain criteria. 

The pop-up lab has also partnered with the city of Berkeley to conduct testing, from first responders to homeless individuals.

“We really want to make sure that people who are going to be overlooked are not overlooked,” Hochstrasser said. “People who don’t have insurance — in a homeless encampment — people like that are still able to access testing.”

Contact Revati Thatte at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.