Published April 17, 2020

by Mike Sepanic

The fight against the coronavirus is underway in a Rutgers University–Camden research laboratory.

The fight against the coronavirus is underway in a Rutgers University–Camden research laboratory, where chemistry professor Jinglin Fu is working to develop a mechanism to rapidly detect viral RNA for potential diagnosis of COVID-19.

“The main problem that we want to address is an urgent need of a rapid and reliable assay that is simple and affordable for mass screening to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Fu. “Right now, the diagnosis of COVID-19 is limited by the slow speed of traditional polymerase chain reaction and the inaccuracy of antibody test. Our goal is to accelerate that timetable.”

The nucleic acid assay can be simply adapted to detect specific DNA/RNA sequences of several diseases, including coronavirus and MRSA, and other transmitting infectious diseases active in the United States.

“The convenience of being quickly customizable and adaptable will be of value for mass screening and early intervention for future pandemics,” says Fu.

The new virus detection process under development at Rutgers University–Camden is based on the patented DNA Logic-gated Proximity Assembly Circuit technology that can directly detect viral-specific nucleic acid sequences, with a triggered biochemical reaction to produce fluorescence and colorimetric signal on a paper strip. According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the successful outcome of the research would handle various types of swabs (oral, throat, and nasal) and blood samples with a simple procedure and a rapid viral RNA read-out. The technology under development can lead to a diagnosis product for point-of-care use by health care providers to screen for emerging infectious diseases.

“This development is at the early stage,” explains Fu. “We are now testing the sensor accuracy for detecting RNA segments of COVID-19 viruses and have not yet detected real virus sample.”

Fu’s research lab focuses on developing regulatory biochemical reaction circuits that can be used to detect various molecular targets, such as nucleic acid, proteins, and small molecules. The Rutgers University–Camden lab invented a unique technique of DNA-mediate proximity assembly circuit (DPAC), which is a rapid nucleic acid detection system that reports a fluorescence or colorimetric signal for simple read-out.

DPAC uses a rationally designed nanostructured sensor to detect sequence-specific nucleic acids, such as microRNA, which are important biomarkers for cancer. The development of DPAC at Rutgers–Camden was sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Office for advancing smart biosensors for diagnosing and monitoring disease. Based on DPAC technology, Fu participated in NSF I-Corps in fall 2019 and performed more than 100 customer interviews with health professionals to understand the unmet need in disease diagnosis. The team is ready to apply the lab-developed technology to address the urgent need in infectious diseases diagnosis.

Situated in Camden’s Joint Health Sciences Center, the Rutgers University–Camden research lab includes the contributions of graduate and undergraduate students and is building on a patented technology that was selected for NSF I-Corps last fall. The coronavirus-related research continues with only one researcher in the lab at a time.

Conducted as part of the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology at Rutgers University–Camden, Fu’s research focuses on bio-mimetic materials and smart nanodevices capable of performing catalysis, computing and sensing for potential applications in biofuel production, diagnosis, and drug delivery.

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