Researchers at Columbia University have teamed up with private enterprise to successfully develop a low-cost, portable platform that gives RT-PCR results in 23 minutes, with a level of accuracy that matches laboratory-based tests.

The new RT-PCR platform is faster than other PCR tests on the market and can be adapted to test for a broad range of infectious diseases, including COVID, influenza, strep, and other viruses that require fast diagnosis.  

The developers say that its targeted sensitivity is higher than other types of tests such as isothermal, antigen, and CRISPR, and at just under 1kg, it is easy to transport and can be used by anyone. 

The new platform bypasses the standard laboratory approach, which relies on a Peltier device to heat the sample externally, by using a photothermal process – plasmonic thermocycling – to irradiate discrete metallic nanoparticles with infrared light to rapidly generate internal heat. 

In their study, published July 25th in Nature Nanotechnology, the team successfully performed reverse-transcriptase quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) in a reaction vessel containing all the PCR reagents, by leveraging plasmonic nanoparticles to achieve real-time and multiplexed RT-qPCR on clinical specimens. 

Lead researcher, Sam Sia, professor of biomedical engineering and Vice Provost for the Fourth Purpose and Strategic Impact at Columbia, explained that the system was co-developed with Rover Diagnostics, a biotech start-up he co-founded in 2018 with computer scientist Mark Fasciano, Rover’s current CEO. 

“Our aim was to create a platform that can be used in locations where rapid turnaround results are critical, at pharmacies, transportation hubs, public events, and at companies screening employees coming back to work,” Professor Sia said. 

“This should really move the needle on delivering rapid and accurate molecular clinical diagnostics in decentralized settings,” Mr Fasciano added.  

“Thermal cycling, so critical to DNA and RNA testing, can now be sped up and clinicians and patients alike won’t have to wait so long for results.” 

For more than 30 years, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has been the gold standard in molecular diagnostic testing, detecting genetic material, such as those from a virus or from human DNA. 

But PCR, including reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), is mostly done at large, centralized laboratories, not in point-of-care (POC) settings, because its instrumentation is bulky, expensive, takes a long time for results, and requires trained technicians to operate.  

These limitations have led to a shortage of accurate POC diagnostics as well as bottlenecks in test results, particularly during the pandemic. 

The Rover team is moving forward with a commercial product that can detect COVID, its variants, and other infectious diseases.