TU Dublin Researchers to Develop Saliva-Based Covid-19 Test With Results Available In Just Minutes

24 Sep, 2020

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD has today announced that researchers at TU Dublin had been awarded funding to develop a saliva-based screening process which can detect COVID-19 in a matter of minutes.

The test could provide an accessible testing solution suitable for use in hospitals and in community settings. The funding was awarded as part of a rapid research response funding call published jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the IDA (SFI-EI-IDA).  

AptaGold – A rapid saliva-based COVID-19 screening assay

AptaGold, led by Dr Niamh Gilmartin and Dr Steve Meaney of the School of Biological & Health Sciences and the Environmental Sustainability and Health Institute (ESHI) at TU Dublin, will provide an innovative saliva-based, instrument-free approach for the detection of COVID-19 which is cost-effective and readily scalable.

Dr Steve Meaney, a Medical Scientist, Biochemist and Assistant Head of the School of Biological & Health Sciences at TU Dublin, explains that extensive testing and early detection are crucial to containing and managing COVID-19, particularly in the absence of sufficient clinical interventions. "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."

It now well established that SARS-CoV-2 viral particles are present in the saliva of infected individuals, says Dr Niamh Gilmartin, a Biochemist and expert in Biomedical Diagnostics at TU Dublin. "AptaGold, our proposed screening assay, 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."

Continuing Dr Gilmartin says testing, isolating and contact tracing are vital to stopping COVID19 and timely, accurate results will significantly reduce the 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 Meaney says 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."

AptaGold is a multi-agency project led by TU Dublin with 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.

Editors' Notes

AptaGold – A rapid saliva-based COVID-19 screening assay

Extensive testing and early detection are crucial to containing and managing COVID-19, particularly in the absence of effective clinical interventions. Our platform will provide an innovative saliva-based, instrument-free approach for the detection of COVID-19, which is cost-effective and readily scalable. 

The assay is based on SARS-CoV-2 driven aggregation of gold nanoparticles coated with SARS-CoV-2 specific aptamers, leading to modulation of the localised surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) of the nanoparticles which translates to a macroscopic, red-to-blue colour change visible to the naked eye. Critically, as this approach does not rely on PCR, it will not compete with the already limited supply chains for molecular reagents and sampling consumables.

This system will provide an accessible, first-line screening solution which delivers results in minutes rather than hours. The low-cost and rapidity of the system enables increased testing, for example of healthcare workers, those in community settings and those in resource-poor environments where molecular tests are unavailable. Development of this approach would be a step-change in COVID19 testing, bringing the capacity to test to all communities and supporting the re-opening of society as part of the next stage of the response to this pandemic.

Project Team

Technological University Dublin (core assay development)

  • Dr Niamh Gilmartin, Biochemist & Molecular Diagnostics, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Steve Meaney, Medical Biochemist, Technological University Dublin
  • Mr Brian Henderson, Bioengineer, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Andrew Knox, Structural Biochemist, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Marcus Maher, Nano-biochemist, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Carla Surlis, Bioinformatician, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Aine Balfe, Medical Microbiologist, Technological University Dublin
  • Dr Celine Herra, Medical Microbiologist, Technological University Dublin

Dublin City University (device design and development)

  • Dr Rohit Mishra, Fraunhofer Project Centre, Dublin City University
  • Ms Julia Kwiatkowska, Fraunhofer Project Centre, Dublin City University

Clinical collaborators (clinical validation)

  • Trinity College Dublin/St James's Hospital
  • Dr Ignacio Martin-Loeches, St. James Hospital and Trinity College Dublin
  • Beaumont Hospital/Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI)
  • Dr Mary Keogan, Clinical Lead, National Clinical Programme for Pathology & Consultant Immunologist, Beaumont Hospital
  • Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick, Consultant Microbiologist, Beaumont Hospital and RCSI
  • Dr Eoghan De Barra, Consultant Infectious Disease Physician, Beaumont Hospital and RCSI