ASU will receive $6 million from state for new COVID-19 test

A working prototype should be ready in six months, ASU President Michael Crow said

The state of Arizona awarded ASU researchers a $6 million contract to develop a rapid point-of-need COVID-19 test, Gov. Doug Ducey announced at a press conference Thursday.

The device will be able to process a saliva-based sample in as little as 20 minutes, a press release said.

Researchers hope to have a prototype of the test ready in six months, ASU President Michael Crow said in a meeting with The State Press Wednesday. 

"You’ll spit into one of the most advanced technological devices that you can possibly imagine," Crow said at the press conference. 

Microchips and tools in the device can take the sample and "move them around, heat them, do the chemistry," then produce the results that are then communicated to a user's phone, Crow said.

READ MORE: Crow says University is effectively managing COVID-19

Three ASU faculty will be the leads for the project — molecular science professor Mark Hayes, electrical, computer and energy engineering associate professor Jennifer Blain Christen and molecular science assistant professor Alexander Green.

Hayes specializes in using microfluids for biological analysis. Christen develops portable systems that can be used "for thermal control and rapid optical readout of results." Green focuses on designing biological sensors to detect pathogens.  

The project's three purposes are to create and distribute a rapid, convenient and inexpensive test, to allow for a rapid scaling of testing and for testing in schools and workplaces, "to ensure a safe environment," the press release said.

The new test will combine the convenience and speed of the recently FDA-approved antigen tests with the accuracy of PCR-based tests, according to the release.

PCR tests are diagnostic tests that show if a person has an active coronavirus infection. In contrast, antibody tests look for body proteins that help fight viruses to detect if someone has had the coronavirus.

The device will display a florescent green signal when the virus is detected. It will also perform all of the reactions needed to test the sample at the same temperature, a benefit over the typical PCR test, which can take hours because multiple steps must be performed at varying temperatures.

Interim Executive Vice President of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Neal Woodbury said in a meeting with The State Press that the device will be a small, microfluidic cassette. Ideally, the technology would be distributed and have comparable accuracy to other COVID-19 tests like ASU's saliva-based sample test, Woodbury said.

The device will be a “lab-on-a-chip technology,” said Joshua LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute, in a press briefing Sept. 16. These devices take small samples of chemicals and analyze them as they would be at a lab but at a much smaller scale, producing results in minutes.

Crow said the device would be about the size of a digital thermometer he held up in The State Press meeting on Zoom.

“Ultimately, we want to produce something easy to use so anyone could ‘spit on a chip’ while waiting for results for a few minutes and then be cleared for everyday activities or events, or rapidly isolated or ID’d as infected,” said Hayes in the press release.  

This point-of-need testing would provide quick results in circumstances where you need immediate results, such as entering a building, LaBaer said.

"Through early detection, preventative measures can minimize contact risk and ensure safe spaces," the press release said.

The funding will come from $5.2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided by the Governor’s Office and $860,000 from the Arizona Department of Health Services, the press release said.

The CARES Act, passed in March with bipartisan support in Congress, allotted nearly $2 trillion in a stimulus package to address economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of Arizona received $441 million from the package and distributed it among cities and counties around the entire state. 

ASU partnered with ADHS in early July to provide saliva tests throughout the state. ADHS committed up to $12.7 million to fund the expansion of tests that report results in 48 hours.

"We are of the view that this virus will be with us in some capacity for the foreseeable future, therefore we need to develop the most sophisticated tools in order to help manage it," Crow said in the press release.  

Senior reporter Piper Hansen contributed to the writing of this article


Reach the reporter at wmyskow@asu.edu and follow @wmyskow on Twitter. 

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