IISc start-up working on faster RT-PCR testing

Updated on Apr 18, 2020 04:55 PM IST

The RT-PCR test amplifies the virus’ genetic material (RNA) from throat swabs of the patients, converts it to DNA, amplifies it and checks it for designated markers to see whether it is the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.

A start-up from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is in the process of validating a new two-step method for RT-PCR testing that can help India scale up molecular testing for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).(Reuters file photo)
A start-up from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is in the process of validating a new two-step method for RT-PCR testing that can help India scale up molecular testing for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).(Reuters file photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

A start-up from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) is in the process of validating a new two-step method for RT-PCR testing that can help India scale up molecular testing for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

The RT-PCR test amplifies the virus’ genetic material (RNA) from throat swabs of the patients, converts it to DNA, amplifies it and checks it for designated markers to see whether it is the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19.

The method devised by the IISc team uses two machines, which are cheaper and readily available in India, instead of one, to complete the test.

A thermal-cycler is used to amplify the genetic material machine, while a fluorescence reader is used to detect the presence of Sars-Cov-2 virus.

Currently, India does about 25,000 RT-PCR tests a day. The testing is likely to go up with the much awaited consignment of 5 lakh rapid blood-based antibody tests arriving from China on Thursday. India has also started manufacturing its own antibody kits.

“RT-PCR is the gold standard of tests, it can detect the presence of the virus in the body from day one, but there are very few RT-PCR machines across the country. They are also expensive. The method we have developed uses a thermal cycler, which is more readily available in biology labs,” said Arun B, director, Shanmukha Innovations, the IISc start-up.

At IISc, there are about 30 RT-PCR machines in comparison to 200 thermal cyclers. There are about 186 government laboratories with the RT-PCR machines that have now been approved for Covid-19 tests.

The fluorescence reader – the second machine needed for the testing -- is also available in several academic labs or can be manufactured at a low cost.

“The fluorescence readers are used to measure the DNA in samples and is available at several academic laboratories. Otherwise, it can be manufactured at a cost of Rs 1 lakh as opposed to about Rs 15 or 20 lakh that the RT-PCR machine costs. We have been working with this method for other diseases such as malaria and kala azar, now we need to just validate the workflow for Covid-19,” said Arun.

Their team has collaborated with the Bangalore Medical College to test round 100 samples using the traditional RT-PCR test and their two-step method to assess whether it is as accurate. The team already has two prototypes.

“Once validated, the manufacturing and scaling up can happen as quickly as four to six weeks,” he said.

The start-up is also working on a mobile laboratory – with bio-safety level II – requirements that can cut down on the testing time. “We already have a few vans donated to us under CSR and we are working on fitting them with equipment and restructuring them as a BSL II labs. Right now, there is a lag of at least three days between the sample collected and patients receiving the report because all the samples have to go to the designated laboratories. Instead, we can now take the vans to the hotspots and do the test directly there. Around 12 samples can be processed in three hours,” said Arun.

Each van is likely to cost around Rs 45 lakh.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Anonna Dutt is a health reporter at Hindustan Times. She reports on Delhi government’s health policies, hospitals in Delhi, and health-related feature stories.

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