Researchers at Columbia Engineering and Rover Diagnostics built an RT-PCR platform that gives results in 23 minutes that match the longer laboratory-based tests.

It can be adapted to test for a broad range of infectious diseases that not only includes COVID but also flu, strep, and other viruses that require fast diagnosis. Its targeted sensitivity is higher than other types of tests such as isothermal, antigen, and CRISPR. At just two pounds, the Rover PCR is easy to carry around and can be used by anyone.

“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,” says Sam Sia, professor of biomedical engineering and vice provost for the Fourth Purpose and Strategic Impact at Columbia. 

The system was co-developed with Rover Diagnostics, a biotech start-up co-founded in 2018 by Sia and serial tech entrepreneur Mark Fasciano, Rover’s CEO. The platform uses sample preparation techniques developed at Sia’s lab, combined with a new approach to thermal cycling, bypassing the standard approach of Peltier device, which heats the sample from outside the vial. Instead, Rover’s system uses a photothermal process, called plasmonic thermocycling, that relies on nanoparticles irradiated by light to rapidly generate heat from inside.

The team successfully performed reverse-transcriptase quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) in a reaction vessel containing all the PCR reagents. qPCR is the current gold-standard laboratory technique for identifying COVID infection. The technique provides quantitation of infectious units, but it also poses a number of hurdles for point-of-care (POC) miniaturization.

In the study published today in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers addressed these challenges by leveraging plasmonic nanoparticles–discrete metallic particles that respond to infrared light by releasing heat–to achieve real-time and multiplexed RT-qPCR on clinical specimens.

“This should really move the needle on delivering rapid and accurate molecular clinical diagnostics in decentralized settings,” says Fasciano, a computer scientist turned software and biotech entrepreneur. “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.”

The Rover team is moving forward with a commercial product that can detect COVID-19, its variants, and other infectious diseases.

Featured image: Infrared heating of plasmonic nanoparticles facilitates multiplexed reverse transcriptase quantitative PCR for rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2. Photo: Abigail Ayers and Nicoletta Barolini/Columbia Engineering.