New method in record time during corona crises
Tekst: Anne-Lise Aakervik
Foto: Geir Morgen/NTNU
A spike in corona virus testing in the spring of 2020 led to St. Olavs Hospital almost running out of testing reagents. The shortage spurred a unique interdisciplinary research project at NTNU, where they developed a new extraction method in record time.
This method now accounts for a considerable part of Norway’s testing capacity for SARS-CoV-2. All testing, be it for the flu, Covid-19, E. coli. or other types of bacteria or viruses, requires the right type of reagents in the testing kit.
“These are special chemicals used in diagnostics. They break open the virus, extracting the genetic material, which can then be analyzed. This is not something you want to run out of during a pandemic, as the entire world is dependent on them,” says Tonje S. Steigedal, who is a project manager at NTNU Technology Transfer and in charge of commercializing the technology. “For St. Olavs Hospital, the situation was dire. Fortunately, a solution was not far off.”
Interdisciplinary super team
St. Olavs Hospital is a university hospital, whose research and teaching activities are integrated with NTNU. For example, the Laboratory Centre, located right next door to the diagnostics department at St. Olavs Hospital, has extensive experience with genetic research.
One of the researchers in this field is Professor Magnar Bjørås, who is heading up several projects at NTNU’s Department of Clinical and Molecular Medicine and the Department of Medical Microbiology at Oslo University Hospital/the University of Oslo.
Bjørås contacted management at the Department of Microbiology at St. Olavs Hospital and said they could try to make the reagents the hospital needed for their corona virus diagnostics. However, Magnar Bjørås and his team of researchers did not have all the answers, which is why they contacted a research team in chemical process technology, who were working on magnetic nano-particles. These are needed in phase 2 of the testing, when the genetic material is extracted.
Enter Sulalit Bandyopadhyay, a postdoctoral candidate at the Department of Chemical Engineering, and his colleagues. Together, they established an interdisciplinary super team of researchers, who developed an in-house extraction method for SARS-CoV-2 in record time.
The containers on the table in front of the covid-19 team at the Department of Clinical and Molecular Medicine/St.Olavs Hospital contain 1.5 million tests. From left departmental engineer Erlend Ravlo, senior engineer Hilde Lysvand, professor and team leader Magnar Bjørås, senior engineer Sten Even Erlandsen, Lars Hagen general manager of PROMEC and senior engineer Per Arne Aas.
Fast and good
It took eight days to establish a solution that worked well. To ensure that this method was reliable, they compared it to other available reagents. It turned out that NTNU’s reagents performed just as well, and sometimes even better than certain other, commercially available testing reagents. Even asymptomatic patients with a very small viral load can be diagnosed using this technology.
The key to success
Now that production is running smoothly, it’s time to check the rear view mirror. “This is not about coincidences,” says Steigedal. “The key to success is in these experts and the close collaboration between St. Olavs Hospital and NTNU. These are experts with decades of research and diagnostics experience between them. They possess a wealth of knowledge and are able to use their experience to think outside the box. This example also highlights the value of having a strong foundation of basic research,” concludes Tonje S. Steigedal.
Post.doc. Sulalit Bandyopadhyay from the Department of Chemical Process Technology at NTNU has been central in the work of developing a new test method for SARS-CoV-2 virus (corona test). Here he studies a sample of magnetic nanoparticles used in the new test method.
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