"We Have The Perfect Technology For This": Developing A Better Rapid COVID-19 Test

Feb 11, 2021

Cassidy Enloe holds the prototype COVID test. Cassidy is a grad student in Chemical Engineering at UW and is the on the ground project technical coordinator.
Credit Cassidy Enloe

A company called CellDrop Biotech is part of a $354,000 grant taking on the task of creating a faster and more accurate rapid test for COVID-19.

The company was founded in 2017 by a University of Wyoming chemical engineering graduate. It uses a new hydrogel that it patented.

"Unlike existing tests, we could build these hydrogel structures at very, very small length scales [and] 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 enable us to basically detect whatever's in them a lot faster because they have the advantage of pulling everything onto the surface that they're being detected on," said CellDrop founder and CEO Ben Noren. "And it works for any sort of test but when the COVID situation began to develop, we were like, 'we have the perfect technology for this.'"

The test will use a saliva sample to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2. It takes about three minutes total to give results. Current rapid tests return results in about 30-40 minutes.

The machine that processes the samples is based on the technology used in airports to detect bomb residue. Another Laramie-based, Metrohm Raman, is developing it.

According to Noren, the combination of their hydrogel technology and the handheld processing machine makes their test able to detect very small virus particles, also known as high sensitivity, but it won't return a high level of false positives or detect the virus in people who have already had the disease and are no longer contagious.

"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," said Noren. "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 [particles] 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% accuracy that yeah, you are good to go outside, you're not going to infect anybody."

Noren sees the commercial version of the test being used in typically crowded places.

Cassidy Enloe loads a sample into a prototype COVID test.
Credit Cassidy Enloe

"The one that I'm moving forward with right now is a version that will be available to medical clinics, to people who are working on 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, and 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," said Noren.

Using similar technology, CellDrop is also developing an at-home test.

"And that wouldn't be quite as sensitive as the handheld detector that we're currently working on, but it would provide a sort of easy at-home solution, where you could just grab one in the morning when you're brushing your teeth and be like 'Oh, COVID safe today!'" said Noren.

The materials these tests use are relatively easy to source, which helps keep the test inexpensive.

CellDrop is partnered with the Oakey lab on the UW campus, led by UW chemical engineering professor John Oakey, the Sikes lab led by Hadley Sikes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Metrohm Raman, which was founded by UW professor emeritus of chemistry Keith Carron, to develop and commercialize these tests. CellDrop is now in the process of fine-tuning them and looking for commercial manufacturing partners to scale up production. Noren hopes the test will be available by this summer.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.