CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Researchers at the University of Illinois and other collaborators discovered a way to make a quicker and reliable test for the COVID-19 virus.

Researchers said the new test are made of small nets woven from strands of DNA that can trap the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19. This knowledge led them to make a quick diagnostic test.

“This platform combines the sensitivity of PCR and the speed and low cost of antigen tests,” said study leader Xing Wang, a Professor of Bioengineering at U of I. “We need tests like this for a couple of reasons. One is to prepare for the next pandemic. The other reason is to track ongoing viral epidemics–not only coronaviruses but also other deadly and economically impactful viruses like HIV or influenza.”

Researchers said DNA can be folded “into custom nanoscale structures that can perform functions or specifically bind to other structures much like proteins do.”

As for the researchers in Illinois, “The DNA nets the Illinois group developed were designed to bind to the coronavirus spike protein–the structure that sticks out from the virus and binds to receptors on human cells to infect them.” Researchers said that once they are bound, an inexpensive handheld device can read the fluorescent signal in around 10 minutes.

The innovative tests can detect the COVID-19 virus even at low levels, equal to the accuracy of PCR testing in less time.

The testing does not require special equipment and can be done at room temperature. All the user has to do is mix the sample with the solution.

Researchers estimate the tests will cost around $1.26 per test. “Another advantage of this measure is that we can detect the entire virus, which is still infectious, and distinguish it from fragments that may not be infectious, but it could greatly improve community-level modeling and tracking of active outbreaks, such as through wastewater.”

“I had this idea at the very beginning of the pandemic to build a platform for testing, but also for inhibition at the same time,” Wang said. “Lots of other groups working on inhibitors are trying to wrap up the entire virus, or the parts of the virus that provide access to antibodies. This is not good because you want the body to form antibodies. With the hollow DNA net structures, antibodies can still access the virus.”

Researchers are using the DNA net platform for the detection of other viruses. “We’re trying to develop a unified technology that can be used as a plug-and-play platform. We want to take advantage of DNA sensors’ high binding affinity, low limited of detection, low cost, and rapid preparation,” Wang said.

The National Institutes of Health supported the work through the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics program.