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TU Dublin Team to Develop Rapid Saliva-Based COVID Test

Researchers at Technological University (TU) Dublin have been awarded funding to develop a saliva-based COVID-19 test, which can detect the virus in a matter of minutes.

The project, known as AptaGold, will focus on developing a test that is suitable for use in a number of settings, is cost effective and is readily scalable.

According to AptaGold lead and medical scientist, Dr Steve Meaney of TU Dublin, current diagnostic tools are expensive as they rely on the use of genetic approaches and require equipment, reagents and trained diagnostic staff.

"The capacity of such laboratory-based test systems will always be a challenge. Our solution meets the urgent need for a cheap, on-the-spot and sample-to-result screening option, using an easily obtainable saliva sample.

"As specialised training or equipment is not required to complete the proposed new test, it might find use in workplaces, airports and other travel hubs, as well as in low-resource environments where there are insufficient laboratory services," he explained.

It is already well established that viral particles from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are present in the saliva of infected individuals.

According to AptaGold co-lead and biochemist, Dr Niamh Gilmartin of TU Dublin, AptaGold is based on mixing patient saliva samples with specially selected DNA strands called aptamers.

"These strands are linked to tiny gold particles, and if COVID-19 virus proteins are present, these particles bunch up, leading to a visible colour change in minutes. Aptamers can be produced at a much lower cost than antibodies, so the production can be easily scaled up to meet demand in Ireland and abroad," she explained.

She emphasised that testing, isolating and contact tracing are all vital to stopping COVID-19 and timely, accurate results will significantly reduce these timelines and save lives.

"AptaGold is designed to be a first-line screening system for those who require immediate treatment and isolation, both in the healthcare sector and in the general population. By providing a simple and inexpensive near-patient test system, this approach will significantly reduce wait times for sample collection and test results," Dr Gilmartin noted.

The researchers believe that the rapid identification of infected patients will improve clinical decision making.

"The system can support rapid intervention and therefore, reduce the spread of infection. This is really relevant as we continue to open up the economy and society. Employees could take the test each morning to quickly find out if they should self-isolate or not and it could be helpful for people to manage their travel plans," Dr Meaney said.

AptaGold is a multi-agency project led by TU Dublin in collaboration with Dublin City University, Trinity College Dublin, St James's Hospital, Beaumont Hospital, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the National Clinical Programme for Pathology.

The funding was awarded as part of a rapid research response funding call published jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

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