Trinity scientists find new way to study Covid-19 variants

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Scientists in Ireland have developed a new technique to quantify the transmissibility of Covid-19 variants that is faster and potentially cheaper than existing methods.

The nanomechanical technique developed by a team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) provides a new way to track infection immunity and analyse new vaccine candidates.

The study was led by CRANN principal investigator Prof Martin Hegner and published in the Nanoscale Advances journal last month. Hegner is also a professor at Trinity’s School of Physics, where he develops new nanotechnological automated diagnostic platforms.

“Our measurements match the statistical analysis of, for example, the transmissibility of the alpha-variant that can otherwise only be gained by analysing the development of the disease proliferation within a population over weeks,” Hegner said.

While existing methods such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) have the same sensitivity, the new technique can do the job faster. “We believe that this new technology can improve and speed up the public health guidance process,” he added.

‘Variants of concern’ and vaccines

Hegner and his team focused their research on Covid-19 variants of concern and the corresponding humoral response each generates. Humoral response is a natural antibody-led immunity response when foreign material is detected in the body.

The World Health Organisation has designated the alpha, beta, gamma and delta variants to be current variants of concern due to their enhanced transmissibility, virulence, or resistance to existing vaccines.

Because some of these variants have developed substantial mutations in the spike protein, they can undermine the efficacy of current vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies.

However, the technology developed by Hegner and his team can assist vaccine development studies from phase one to three and bring down the cost of preparation protocols in existing assays.

“The direct technique greatly simplifies the preparation protocol that in ELISA includes many washings and waiting steps, hence reducing the amount of consumables needed and thus the relative cost. It will therefore be well suited to use in emergency situations,” Hegner added.

Hegner won the €1.3m Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator award in 2016, which contributes to his work in the field of novel medical devices – with the aim to further miniaturise existing devices for portable testing and introduction in the market.

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