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Early warning test for coronavirus

Friday 01 May 20

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Peter M. H. Heegaard
Professor
DTU Health Tech

Grant from The Independent Research Fund Denmark

The Independent Research Fund Denmark’s support for the research project is part of the DKK 22 million which has been allocated by the research council to corona-related research. Total applications totalled approx. DKK 665 million.

Read more about the project

Researchers to develop skin prick test to detect coronavirus before patients fall ill with COVID-19 and to identify at-risk patients.

A skin prick test and subsequent analysis of the protein content in a drop of blood may become a new way of detecting coronavirus infection before patients fall ill with COVID-19. The skin prick test can also be used to identify patients with an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Researchers from Aarhus University, DTU, and Rigshospitalet have received a grant of DKK 2.8 million from The Independent Research Fund Denmark to develop the test, which should be ready by 2021.

“The test is based on newly developed technologies and what we know about the changes that occur in the content of protein and other molecules in the blood when we’re infected by a virus. The test must be able to detect viral infection after only 6-12 hours and before the person feels ill, as this opens up new possibilities for doctors being able to provide early treatment and hopefully to thereby reduce the severity of the disease,” says Professor Peter Heegaard from the Centre for Diagnostics DTU, which is participating in the research project on early prediction of COVID-19 infection.

The research project is led by Professor Jørgen Kjems from Aarhus University, AU, and is based on so-called ‘APTASHAPE’ technology, where billions of small biosensor molecules, based on RNA strands, provide a snapshot of proteins and other molecules in the patient’s blood. In 2020, the method was proven to be effective when examining patients for suspected bladder cancer, which it could detect with 95% precision.

Biological fingerprint

All the data about a patient’s blood is translated using artificial intelligence into a biological fingerprint, which can then be read and ‘translated’ into markers for the disease through mass spectrometry—MALDI-MS technology, which has been developed by Peter Heegaard at DTU.

In trying to find good RNA strands that can bind molecules which hold potential as biomarkers, the researchers are using experiments with coronavirus-infected pigs in Italy. Here, Dr Davide Lelli, from the veterinary institute IZSLER in Brescia, has collected blood samples, which the Danish researchers will start by testing their method on. After that, the method will be tested on samples from 50 Danish COVID-19 patients who have been admitted to Rigshospitalet during the current pandemic. 

Peter Heegaard emphasizes that the development of the new test aims to monitor the human organism’s reactions to the coronavirus. A forthcoming test could therefore be widely used, even if the coronavirus mutates, and the test could also be used to detect infections with other viruses. 

If the researchers succeed in developing the new test, it will be a key element in keeping the spread of the virus at a level where hospitals can cope with the most serious cases. The test could become a tool in understanding and possibly identifying the approximately 5% of COVID-19 patients who develop severe symptoms, and the 0.2–0.5% who die while others are barely affected.

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