Quick and accurate COVID-19 testing is a key part of getting the pandemic under control. And a Laramie company is part of the effort to make that a reality. Wyoming Public Radio's Ivy Engel talked to CellDrop Biosciences founder, Ben Noren, about the type of testing they are developing.
Ben Noren: We use materials called hydrogels. So if you think of jello, it's probably the most ubiquitous example of a hydrogel. Hydrogels make up a lot of what's in your body and so using synthetic hydrogels, we're able to recreate things like the spaces that cells live inside of you. This particular project was based out of using hydrogel like a sponge and taking these, what's called lateral flow amino assay tests, which basically detect various biological substances in a sample like saliva, but doing it in a way that works better than what existed. Because unlike existing tests, we could build these hydrogel structures at very, very small length scales, dehydrate them, and when we put a sample, like saliva, into them, they would rehydrate and suck all of the things in towards these little sponge-like hydrogel structures, and it enabled us to basically detect whatever's in them a lot faster because they have the advantage of pulling everything into the surface that they're being detected on. And it works for any sort of test, but when the COVID situation began to develop, we were like, 'You know, we have the perfect technology for this.'
Ivy Engel: Is that what makes yours different is the fact that it's dehydrated?
BN: It is one of the key things that makes it different. Because we have this cool hydrogel technology that nobody else is using that we have patented, we are able to detect substances in our sample faster, and that in and of itself is pretty cool. But we had this bigger vision where we could create a test that was not only faster but would be able to detect smaller amounts of substances. So, another issue with some of the rapid tests that are on the market is they're not very sensitive.
One of our collaborators in this project is Metrohm Raman, which is a company that has a base of operations in Laramie, and we've partnered with them to basically produce these cool little handheld detectors that will enable us to, in under five minutes, detect these very, very small amounts of, in this case, COVID-19, that are in these samples. And so that is something else that makes our process unique. We do something called Surface Enhanced Raman or SERS, but it's very, very sensitive, and we can do this with just their little handheld instrument, and so that is another part of our overall process that is unique. And that, when it's all said and done, will enable us to fulfill a niche that we will be able to detect this lower level of COVID-19 than other tests can detect.
IE: So with being that sensitive, do you see a possible issue with giving false positives?
BN: Yeah, that is definitely something you want to watch out for, right? And the cool thing about this technology is we're able to tune it, and that's kind of what we're working on right now is tuning it so that it does not go overboard and just keep returning false positives all the time, and by basically having it at a level where it will return positive results for the most at-risk patients. So people who have very, very low levels of SARS-CoV-2 are unlikely to spread it and it's the people who are shedding virus who have these higher levels that will spread it and are at the most risk of infecting others. And so we want our system to be able to basically tell you whether or not it's safe for you to go to the grocery store, or to go into a big event like a sports arena, or on an airplane. And it can say with 98 percent accuracy that yeah, you are good to go outside, you're not going to infect anybody. That's kind of how we are moving forward and the heart of our development that we're working on right now.
IE: How widespread will this be?
BN: Right now we are working on two variants of this test. So the one that we are moving forward with right now is a version that will be available to medical clinics, to people who are working at a sporting arena, on an airplane, that type of situation where you spit in our little device, you hand it over to the person and they stick it in the reader. In around three minutes, it will return whether or not you're safe to go about your business, and then enables basically, a much higher degree of certainty about not spreading it.
At the same time, and using very similar technology, we're also developing an at-home version, which sort of eschews the handheld reader, and would be perhaps a simple color test, but it would still use the patented sponge hydrogel technology. So it would be a leg up on what's currently available in that it would return results faster and it would be more sensitive because that sponge sucking in any viral particles would concentrate whatever is in that sample automatically. And so you would be able to, with higher reliability, detect what's in that. It wouldn't be quite as sensitive as the handheld detector that we're currently working on, but it would provide an easy at-home solution, where you could just like grab one in the morning when you're brushing your teeth and be like 'Oh, COVID safe today!'
IE: About how much are these tests going to cost? Is it going to be feasible for every venue to have one and every person to have one at home? Or is it going to be something that it's going to take a while to get the cost down to where just anyone can have it?
BN: Yeah, so the components of the test are easy to obtain, and there's nothing that is super fancy or takes a lot of time and effort to produce and those are all great, great things for when you're producing a test that needs to be scaled and scaled in a very big way because it more or less means that we can produce them inexpensively. There's no roadblocks to that. And we don't have the partners to really know exactly what it's going to cost in the end. We do know that the materials that it will be made out of are inexpensive and that the test itself is designed in such a way that it can be scaled easily, and that will make it cost-effective.
IE: What's the timeline that you're kind of looking at right now?
BN: We would love to be able to start manufacturing these and getting them out by this summer, and we are doing the very best we can to make our portion of it happen. And a lot of it is going to be just from a scaling point of view, how fast can we get companies to source materials, build the test, and then figure out how to get it to people and that's the big unknown. From the science and technology development aspect, it's going really well, better than science goes in general. It's usually slower. So it's that part of it is really encouraging.