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Lim Boon Chuan is studying synthetic biology at University of Oxford. -Pic courtesy of Lim Boon Chuan
Lim Boon Chuan is studying synthetic biology at University of Oxford. -Pic courtesy of Lim Boon Chuan

LONDON: A Malaysian PhD student is part of a team of scientists from the University of Oxford’s Engineering Science Department and the Oxford Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research (OSCAR) that has developed a rapid testing technology for Covid-19.

Lim Boon Chuan, 26, a Public Service Department (PSD) scholarship student studying synthetic biology at the university, said the new technology produced results faster and could potentially be used by anyone at home.

“We can use a single temperature, which is 65°C for half an hour to see the results,” said Lim, who had won several awards, including the third prize at the 2018 Chief Data International Big Data Forum & Competition for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The diagnostic kit does not need a complicated instrument.

Lim said previous viral RNA tests needed up to two hours to produce a result. The new technology, however, can give results in just half an hour, over three times faster than the current method.

“We don’t need the extraction step done — this is the step that requires another set of kits, equipment and chemicals to do the test.

PSD scholar Lim Boon Chuan.
PSD scholar Lim Boon Chuan.

“Our goal is to design and produce something that can be sent to households, so people should be able to do the testing at home easy and fast without going to a diagnostic centre or to the hospital.

“In the United Kingdom, if you go for tests, it takes three days to come back (to retrieve the results).

“But if we are able to produce or design something that people can use to test at home, they can get the result within half an hour without a cycle of temperatures.

“Initially, the kits were sent to China to test cases there to see if the kits work on real clinical samples, and they worked. And since the cases are on the increase in the UK, we are going to do more collaboration with universities and hospitals here.”

Lim, from Kuala Lumpur, became involved with the project, which started last month, when the Covid-19 virus was raging in China with very few cases in Europe and the UK. His role was to design and run all the experiments.

Prof Zhanfeng Cui
Prof Zhanfeng Cui

“(Actually) this (the research) has nothing to do with my PhD work. My supervisor, Prof Wei Huang, who is from China, is one of two scientists leading the team,” he said during a Skype interview.

The other leading scientist for the team is Prof Zhanfeng Cui, who is also the OSCAR director. The team of 13 had been working to improve test capabilities as the virus spreads internationally.

According to the press release, the technology is very sensitive.

“This means that patients in early stages of infection may be identified sooner, potentially helping to reduce the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19).

“The technology requires only a simple heat-block which maintains a constant temperature for RNA reverse transcription and DNA amplification, and the results can be read by the naked eye.

“This makes it potentially useful in rural area or community healthcare centres,” the statement read.

The technology had been validated with real clinical samples at Shenzhen Luohou People’s Hospital in China. The hospital applied the rapid detection kits on 16 clinic samples, including eight positives and eight negatives, which have been confirmed by conventional RT-PCR methods and other clinical evidence.

The test results using the rapid detection kits were all successful.

Prof Zhanfeng Cui said: ‘I am proud of our team that has developed a useful technology and can make a contribution in combating Covid-19. Weare very grateful to the hospital’s medical team led by Dr Xizhou Sun, Dr Xiuming Zhang and Dr Dan Xiong for their part in testing this new technology.’

The Oxford scientists are now working to develop an integrated device so that the test can be used at clinics, airports or even at home. They are planning to run clinical validations within the UK and exploring options for production of the test kits.

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