UPLB alumna is behind COVID-19 testing tech in Switzerland

An alumna of UPLB and native of Los Baños leads the development of a mass testing technology in Switzerland that is considered a breakthrough in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Catharine Aquino-Fournier (BS Biology ’96, MS Genetics ‘03) is the group leader of the application called HiDRA-seq at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich (FGCZ), a core facility of the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

According to Aquino-Fournier, HiDRA-seq detects the novel coronavirus using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), a state-of-the-art DNA sequencing technology.

NGS technology is used to determine the DNA sequence or fingerprint of a cell or an organism. It analyzes billions of DNA fragments from a cell in a matter of hours.

During her guesting in Radyo DZLB’s GALING UPLB, a campus-based internet radio program, on June 19, Aquino-Fournier said that HiDRA-seq’s method is similar with the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (rRT–PCR), the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing, because it also counts how many virus particles are present in the sample. 

“The difference is that [while] in rRT-PCR, the output is a fluorescent intensity, in our test, the output is COVID-specific sequences.  Since we have the sequences, we can determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that we find,” Aquino-Fournier explained.

“In the technology we developed, we are trying to skip the part of extracting the genetic material and get it straight from saliva, or gargles, or directly from the swab,” she added, taking note that such decreases the processing time.

Skipping the extraction of the genetic material is another thing that differentiates HiDRA-seq from rRT–PCR.

Aquino-Fournier added that their developed method also has a built-in contact tracing functionality, which can detect where or from whom one got infected.

In its official press release, the team explained that the genetic sequences of the virus are not only tested for an infection, but are also sequenced. This enables scientists to draw conclusions about infection chains and the origin of the virus.

Ralph Schlapbach, head of FGCZ, added in the said press release a disclaimer that their approach was not developed for diagnostic purposes, although its promising results showed that it can be used to complement the current diagnostic methods and that it enables population testing or mass testing. 

The application enables the processing of up to 100,000 samples in a single run for about $ 2 per sample.

“Since there is a shortage of materials used for rRT–PCR, we tried to come up with a technique to not affect their supply,” Aquino-Fournier added, stressing that HiDRA-seq is not meant to replace rRT-PCR.

HiDRA-seq also fills in rRT-PCR’s main drawback – its lack of genotypic information. This support could enable the mapping of the spread and transmission, as well as the monitoring of the evolution of the etiological agent, which is crucial for vaccine development.

She clarified that like rRT-PCR, their developed method is not 100% accurate, with a 10% chance of yielding wrong results.

Being a new diagnostic method, Aquino-Fournier’s project team is constantly seeking feedback from experts and collaboration opportunities to improve it.

The team published its paper on a preprint server, which gives scientists the information required to establish and adapt the testing system in their own labs. (John Glen S. Sarol)

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