Nanoscience Laboratory Works to Synthesise Material for COVID-19 Test Kits

One of the key roadblocks in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the availability of reliable RNA test kits to identify people carrying the virus. Testing is essential for rapid identification and tracing of infection. While antibody tests can show which people have already been exposed at some point in the past and have developed an immune response, the RNA tests can determine whether the person is currently infected and, depending on the load of virus, how long it is since they acquired it. Australia has only a few groups currently able to manufacture these tests. A common method involves taking the fluid from a swab, lysing cells, and separating the RNA with magnetic beads. A shortage of these beads has held up the development of locally made COVID-19 tests and led to dependence on over-priced and often low-quality tests from overseas. Because of the heavy demand for these tests, supply is not assured.

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science (ACEx) in the Masson Building has been working on making these magnetic nanobeads for Australian made COVID-19 test kits. Working with a Melbourne chemical company (Scaled Organics) in Sunshine and PCR test kit developer Genetic Signatures in Sydney, the ACEx team are optimising the synthesis so that up to 100,000 tests a week can be carried out with a domestic test kit. The project is challenging because of the tight timelines and there is a lot of interesting new chemistry to learn about RNA binding, magnetic materials and scale-up of lab based materials. The project has been coordinated by Dr Nicholas Kirkwood and the team has involved Dingchen Wen, Jiho Han, Dr Siobhan Bradley, Hanbo Yang, Conor Day, Angela Keyte, Stella Wu and visiting students Marta Perxes from Spain and Yang Hui from China. The team hope to demonstrate a commercially viable material in the next 3-4 weeks.