UC Berkeley scientists use CRISPR technology to develop rapid COVID-19 diagnostic test

photo of researchers developing new diagnostic testing for COVID-19
Brittany Hosea-Small/Courtesy
After realizing the limitations and inconveniences of current COVID-19 testing, a team containing UC Berkeley scientists aims to apply CRISPR technology to COVID-19 testing, making it more efficient and reliable.

Related Posts

Scientists from UC Berkeley are part of a research team using Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR technology to develop a COVID-19 diagnostic test that is fast, convenient and can be performed on-site.

The team overseeing the study includes scientists in the labs of Jennifer Doudna, campus professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; David Savage, campus associate professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and structural biology in the department of molecular & cell biology and Patrick Hsu, campus assistant professor of bioengineering, according to a Berkeley News article.

“We developed a method to rapidly detect RNA from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, using two CRISPR nucleases in tandem, Cas13 and Csm6,” said Tina Liu, the study’s team leader, in the email. “Our assay can detect the presence of tiny amounts of viral RNA (31 copies of RNA per microliter or 50 attomolar RNA) in only 20 min, works at a single-temperature (37˚C), and doesn’t require target amplification.”

Liu noted the limitations of current COVID-19 testing. She said in the email that the “gold standard” is the qRT-PCR test, which still requires a centralized laboratory, specialized equipment and several hours to process. It can take several days before results are revealed.

Hsu added that the qRT-PCR test also requires amplifying billions of copies of the target, which can sometimes lead to contamination and falsely positive results.

“​​We need tests that are fast and convenient, something that you could get at an airport before you hop on a flight or take every day when you go to work or school,” Liu said in the email.

The method of testing that relies on CRISPR will be fast, sensitive and may be implemented in a way that allows people to receive their test results instantly, according to Liu.

According to Liana Lareau, campus assistant professor in the department of bioengineering, another advantage of CRISPR-based testing is its applicability to new COVID-19 variants. By using eight different target sequences to achieve a higher signal, the test is less susceptible to missing a positive case due to mutations.

Liu added that FIND-IT, the new testing method, could potentially be cheaper to assemble than the current, FDA-authorized CRISPR-based diagnostics, as it contains fewer enzymes and requires only one step for detection.

As of now, the exact cost is currently unknown and is contingent on the test’s final format, according to Liu.

Liu noted that the research team’s work demonstrates what can be achieved through a team effort. She said in the email she largely attributes the idea to apply CRISPR technology to COVID-19 testing to the creative and encouraging environment.

“We hope that FIND-IT method could help to spur the development of rapid diagnostic tests that can be deployed at the point of care, as opposed to a centralized laboratory,” Liu said in the email. “In addition, because CRISPR is programmable, our method could also be adapted to detect other viruses, and thus could help guard us against future pandemics.”

Contact Kira Rao-Poolla at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kiraraopoolla.