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Broad Institute Researchers Design COVID-19 Tests that Could Cost ‘Around Ten Dollars’

Researchers at the Broad Institute are working on a COVID-19 detection protocol that could potentially take less than an hour.
Researchers at the Broad Institute are working on a COVID-19 detection protocol that could potentially take less than an hour. By Owen A. Berger
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

Researchers at the Broad Institute are improving and validating a COVID-19 detection protocol that could potentially take less than an hour and cost around ten dollars per test.

The development on the so-called “SHERLOCK” protocol — short for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking — comes as the Broad Institute announced it would put its “high-throughput genomic capabilities at the disposal of the Commonwealth to enable increased capacity for COVID-19 diagnostic testing” in a press release Tuesday.

The protocol uses Cas13, an RNA targeting enzyme, to detect viral RNA sequences in extracted nucleic acid samples. Omar O. Abudayyeh, a researcher at the Broad Institute and a co-author of the protocol, said the enzyme “can detect single molecules and nucleic acid” with “high specificity.”

“It’s sensitive to even just single mismatches between the target you want and something else, which is great for if you’re genotyping a person and want to know if they have a particular mutation for a disease, or if you’re trying to distinguish two viruses that are really similar, like COVID-19 and other SARS-type viruses,” Abudayyeh said.

The protocol, if validated through testing and approved by the federal government, could offer significant improvements to existing COVID-19 diagnostic tests.

Broad Institute researcher Jonathan S. Gootenberg, a co-author of the protocol, said current tests have high costs and other requirements that could be reduced by his team’s approach.

“We would ballpark that the test could be faster, especially if it had other advantages like needing less instrumentation,” Gootenberg said. “Similar for cost, we can ballpark what the tests would be in production, because there are certain factors that can make the price of the test go down in mass production, but also labor and other manufacturing processes.”

“We ballpark that our tests could be potentially around ten dollars per test,” he added.

Abudayyeh said the team aimed to make SHERLOCK “simple to operate” compared to existing tests.

Recommendations against in-laboratory research to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have forced changes in the group’s workstyle. The researchers are improving their detection protocol in ways that minimize in-person interaction.

“Computational biologists – they’re working remotely – and other lab members are also working remotely, maybe doing literature or discussing concepts and not actually doing experiments,” Gootenberg said. “For those of us who still have to come into lab, we’re using our best reasonable measures, where we try to avoid public transportation, Ubers, anything that might have the capacity to be a factor.”

“While we’re together in spaces, we don’t have meetings in person, and in lab, we try to maintain distances between each other,” he added, acknowledging that these changes have made day-to-day operations “a little more difficult.”

Though the protocol has not been fully validated and approved for circulation, Gootenberg said the team is hopeful for successful results in the near future.

“When we first published the protocol, it was met with a significant amount of enthusiasm, and the protocol has been distributed to various groups dealing with clinical samples who have shown initial promising results,” Gootenberg said. “We’re in the process of really improving the test and trying to make something that can help this currently unmet need for testing.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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