University of Texas at Dallas researchers have developed an accurate rapid test for viruses that can deliver lab-quality test results within 30 minutes.

Zhenpeng Qin, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering and corresponding author of a new study demonstrating the method, called DIgitAl plasMONic nanobubble Detection (DIAMOND), published the work online March 30 in Nature Communications. Qin and his team in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science have launched a new company, Avsana Labs, to commercialize the technology through the University’s Venture Development Center.

While the current study focused on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), Qin says the technology can be applied to other viruses, such as those that cause influenza and COVID-19. Researchers also aim to use the rapid test platform to identify cancer biomarkers.

“If we can detect pathogens earlier, we should be able to save lives,” says Haihang Ye, PhD, research associate in mechanical engineering and co-corresponding author of the study. “Our detection is quick, accurate and sensitive.”

The technology is 150 times more accurate than traditional rapid tests for viruses and matches the accuracy of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The new strategy paves the way for much faster results than PCR tests, which often take a day or more for results to be determined. In addition, the tests are inexpensive and do not require complex liquid handling or extensive sample preparation.

DIAMOND involves attaching gold nanoparticles to antibodies against the virus being tested. These combination molecules are then mixed with a patient sample from a nasal swab. If the sample contains a virus, the antibodies labeled with gold nanoparticles will bind with proteins on the virus’s surface.

The researchers use a syringe to pump the sample into a tube called a microchannel, which is as narrow as a strand of thin spaghetti. The microchannel is mounted on a glass slide placed on a surface. As the liquid flows through the microchannel, it passes through the light of two lasers in a process that Ye compared to the way luggage moves on a conveyor to be scanned at an airport.

The first laser activates the gold nanoparticles, which absorb the laser’s energy and expand. If the expansion is strong enough, the nanoparticle will boil the surrounding water, generating vapor bubbles. The size of the nanobubbles is what determines the test result. Large nanobubbles signal the presence of a virus.

“If the virus is present, it will have a big nanobubble signal,” says Yaning Liu, a mechanical engineering doctoral student and co-first author of the paper. “If there’s no virus, there will be a tiny nanobubble signal from the particle only so we can differentiate the sample’s status.”

The technology would need to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration before the accurate rapid test for viruses could be made available to the public. The researchers aim to bring the technology to hospitals, labs, drive-thru pharmacies and, eventually, home tests.

While Avsana Labs works to commercialize the technology, researchers will continue to improve the rapid test platform and expand its applications. Avsana and Qin, the company’s president, won the grand prize in a MassChallenge pitch competition for North Texas in January and received $10,000 to help commercialize the technology. MassChallenge is a global nonprofit organization that supports innovation and entrepreneurship.

Other UT Dallas contributors to the Nature Communications study included Chen Xie, mechanical engineering doctoral student, and Peiyuan Kang PhD’20, now a researcher at Harvard Medical School. The research included collaborators from UT Southwestern Medical Center: pediatric research scientist Dr. HoangDinh Huynh, and Jeffrey S. Kahn, MD, PhD, chief of pediatric infectious disease. In addition, a team of UT Dallas engineering students contributed to the device through UTDesign Capstone, a Jonsson School engineering and computer science program.

Qin received $2.5 million in grants (R21AI140462 and R01AI151374) over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health, and a $293,000 grant from the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs to support the research.

UT Dallas has filed a provisional patent on the technology, and Qin and Kahn hold equity interest in Avsana Labs.

Featured Image: From left: Zhenpeng Qin, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering, mechanical engineering doctoral student Yaning Liu, and Haihang Ye, PhD, research associate in mechanical engineering, are part of a team that is working to commercialize technology for a rapid virus test they have developed. Photo: The University of Texas at Dallas