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Aug. 23, 2021

MSU medical student developing a new COVID-19 testing protocol

As cases of the delta variant increase, the time and cost of mass-scale COVID-19 testing remains a persistent issue that a Michigan State University medical student is working to solve.


Zach Morehouse, a fourth-year student at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, is part of a team that has developed testing protocols that require half the time and resources of even the current testing gold standard — without sacrificing accuracy.


Now, their process has a field-validated study published on August 18, 2021 in PLoS ONE. Funding for the research comes from Omni International Inc., a BioTech firm in Georgia.


Morehouse, working alongside a team of researchers and collaborators from around the globe, helped create a new testing protocol utilizing homogenizers. Homogenizers uniformly break apart and mix substances together for faster and cheaper virus testing.


In a typical extraction-based polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test, the patient swab goes through a step called the extraction procedure, where the RNA is removed from the virus on the swab. Then, the RNA goes into a PCR, which amplifies the RNA and shows whether the virus is present. Morehouse and the team developed a testing protocol that bypasses the RNA extraction and goes through homogenization, breaking up the virus so it can go straight into the PCR-based reaction.


In terms of patient experience, this new protocol is virtually identical to current testing methods. Patients will still get a nasal or oral swab, but there are two differences patients might notice: faster results and a potentially lower cost of testing, since fewer materials are required.


In the newly published study, the team was able to conduct field research in Malawi, Africa, where they compared the standard extraction-based PCR method with their homogenization-based method to determine if it would have comparable, if not equal, accuracy.


“We saw a strong agreeability between the two methods, which was great news for us because it showed that our method allows for accurate COVID-19 detection, with the major benefit being that our method uses half of the resources and time as the extraction-based gold standard,” Morehouse said. “This is particularly impactful for areas such as Malawi where testing resources have been scarce throughout the pandemic, improving the access to care in these communities.”


According to Morehouse, who has a research background in virology, most COVID-19 tests are evaluated based on a PCR test, which require resource-heavy steps and specialized lab equipment that many smaller hospitals don’t have.


This means patient samples from rural community hospitals and testing centers are often sent to labs in larger metro areas to be tested, causing potential delays in getting results to patients and health care teams.


“As osteopathic physicians, we are being trained to meet people where they're at in their health care,” Morehouse said. “My instructors are good at explaining that it isn't always in fancy hospitals or big tertiary care facilities where you have every resource available. Sometimes you have to work with what you have and innovate to meet the needs of your patients while working to solve the health delivery disparities they face.


“We know that the availability of technology is prohibitive in access to care. Having the ability to bring this technology into resource-challenged areas that maybe can't afford to set up a fully-automated testing lab really helps,” he said.

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