UNAM scientists create biosensor to detect COVID-19

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To reach areas where there are no resources or medical laboratories to help detect Covid-19 infections, a group of 30 university scientists decided to explore other ways to achieve it.

These are graduates of Physics, Mathematics, Biology and Chemistry, who pooled their knowledge to develop a biosensor that allows Covid-19 to be detected, through PCR tests, in a cheaper way, but just as accurate as any similiar test.

This group of scientists is led by Doctor of Sciences Tatiana Fiordelisio Coll, an academic from the Faculty of Sciences (FC) and head of the National Laboratory of Biomimetic Solutions for Diagnosis and Therapy (LANSBIODyT) of said academic entity.

Within this laboratory, work has been carried out for six years on the detection of hormones such as insulin and glucose, a project with which it sought to detect in advance those that cause endocrine-metabolic diseases, such as polycystic ovary and thyroid problems, in order to treat them.

With this research, the university students obtained the international patent for their detection method, but the pandemic arrived in 2020. However, this did not prevent them from continuing; they took advantage of the progress of their research to use it in the global health situation.

“We were very advanced in these sensors, we already have experience and this is going to be very strong for the country. We are very aware that the nation has few resources and we decided to adapt our sensor to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus”, explained Tatiana Fiordelisio.

The tests began in February, shortly after the declaration of the pandemic in the world, they began working with the National Institute of Epidemiological Diagnosis and Reference (InDRE), which gave them samples to be studied and obtain the results. They tested every step of the sensor to optimize it for low cost and ease of use. They took on the task of making tests to detect the virus available to the university community and society in general; “Having access to a clinical laboratory is difficult and expensive, our goal is to reach the towns where PCR is not being done right now and samples are not being taken,” said Fiordelisio Coll.

The collaboration with the InDRE allowed the project of Fiordelisio and his team to obtain the validation of the research and development of the concept, that is, the confirmation that the test carried out by the university scientists has 100% sensitivity and 98% of specificity. “This refers to how many positives you do say that they are positive or how many negatives you do say that they are negative,” explained the academic.

However, the technical validation has been bogged down with the InDRE since January 2021 due to the fact that it does not have the necessary equipment, a fluorescence reader. But they did not sit idly by and obtained the ISO 9001 certification so that they could carry out PCR tests, from the taking of the sample to the issuance of the result.

five hundred a day

According to Tatiana Fiordelisio, so far they have carried out just over 19,200 tests; 500 are made daily. However, this figure will be increased to 800, which have a cost of 500 pesos for the university community and 700 for the general public; the results are delivered on the same day.

On a daily basis, the team’s chemists work from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. taking samples and then continuing with the PCR process, which lasts until after midnight. With the help of physicists, biologists, doctors and mathematicians “we check the graphs and make sure everything is fine, because another problem we have seen in this time is that many times when automating this technique false positives and false negatives arise and we do not want to distress people ”, commented the researcher.

It is worth mentioning that with the result obtained in the tests carried out by this team, it not only allows the patient to know if it is positive or negative, but also informs about the cycle threshold value, that is, the amount of virus that the infected person harbors, either high, medium or low and that very few laboratories include it. “We think that it is important that people have information, not only that positives and negatives are delivered; our diagnosis has a little explanation so that people know, we believe that it is relevant as scientists to transmit knowledge in such a way that people can make appropriate decisions”, he stated.

Although this diagnostic work has been carried out for two years, the expert assures that they will continue to carry out the tests until necessary, since “people need to know, not just guess what they have,” she said.

“Within the UNAM tests are constantly being carried out in various instances, they are done weekly to the workers, with which their positivity rate for the virus has not increased; a couple of schools gave them to the students just before returning to classes at the beginning of the school year”. Samples were taken from 500 children and it was possible to isolate a hundred positives who were no longer there that Monday,” he explained.

To help the population

According to the researcher, the work that these university students do is to help the population and give them a more humane, friendlier face. “The girl who does the registration every night, Regina, tells me: I’m going to sleep exhausted, but happy because I realize that I have given 19,000 people another option.”

Tatiana Fiordelisio is proud of the team she leads because she knows that it is a team of highly trained, human, conscientious, innovative young people with a lot of potential. But he regrets that there is no support for the development of his ideas, “it is frustrating that there is no innovation path so that we pass through the appropriate doors, so that those of us who are making proposals can bring them to fruition. Science is working collectively”, he concluded.

For information, appointments and tests, send an email to [email protected].

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