CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, a silver lining is that researchers from diverse cultural backgrounds are coming together to work on the response — as Jewish-American Jonathan Gootenberg and Palestinian-American Omar Abudayyeh can attest.
Gootenberg and Abudayyeh both work at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are collaborating with the Broad Institute-based laboratory of MIT neuroscience professor Feng Zhang, which released a protocol of an at-home coronavirus test on May 8.
“I think it speaks to one of the many ways science can transcend cultural boundaries,” Gootenberg said in a Zoom call with members of the Zhang lab and The Times of Israel.
The duo, who both grew up in the United States, have worked together very closely over the last five years. Abudayyeh credited some of their productivity to their diverse backgrounds.
Their achievements include helping develop a viral detection technique called SHERLOCK, or specific high-sensitivity enzymatic reporter unlocking. Using SHERLOCK, they worked with members of the Zhang lab on the test, which they compare to a pregnancy test. It can use either a nasopharyngeal (NP) swab or saliva sample in detecting whether a person has the coronavirus.
“Our main goal is to simplify as much as possible for point-of-care, at-home testing,” Abudayyeh said.
The lab began working on a test as early as December or January, according to one of its members, Julia Joung. They released a protocol of their first version on February 14. Since then, they have worked on a second version, Joung said.
The Zhang lab test, called STOPCovid, has not been peer reviewed yet and does not have FDA approval. The team’s earlier protocol, which has been licensed by Sherlock Biosciences, recently received emergency-use FDA authorization, but STOPCovid has not yet. The team is actively developing STOPCovid further and validating clinical samples now, according to an MIT spokesperson.
“I think our preprint is only the start of what we can accomplish,” Joung said. “It’s great, we’re getting a lot of attention. We have to push further than ever to get it into non-complex clinical labs and out eventually to homes. There’s a lot of work to be done towards the final goal, testing at home.”
Testing in general is critical to the coronavirus response, Abudayyeh said, calling it the “main modality,” which helps to “immediately track new outbreaks before a second wave.” It’s an immediate goal en route to the long-term aim of herd immunity, he said.
Abudayyeh cited a recommendation of 500,000 to a million tests per day before society and work can reopen. In six to eight weeks, the US has only tested seven million people.
“We have a long way to go to meet the capacity,” he said. “It requires new approaches, new technologies, not relying on central labs.”
For the previous version, the team received an unprecedented emergency use approval from the FDA to utilize in the test a technology called CRISPR — or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — which relies on a type of enzyme called Cas9. In the test, samples from saliva or swabs can be broken down to release viral RNA, which is heated in water at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), with results shown on a lateral strip. The lab aims for a turnaround of around an hour.
The test can detect up to 100 molecules of the genetic makeup of the virus. It has correctly identified and diagnosed 12 positive cases and five negative ones based on nasal swabs. It has detected the coronavirus in three replicates for 11 of the 12 positive cases, and in at least two of three replicates for 12 of the 12 cases.
The Zhang lab is posting its data on a website, STOPCovid.science, for members of the science community and the general public to look over and share feedback. Meanwhile, they are sending test kits and reagents to collaborators across the globe, from Yale University to Seattle to Thailand, in hopes of expanding the number of patients tested. When lab members spoke with The Times of Israel, they had already sent out 18 kits, with 70 more requested and in the queue.
“All around the world, you have people coming together, science coming together, there’s much more collaboration,” Gootenberg said.
Zhang lab members differentiated their technology from the older PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, which was used in early coronavirus testing by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect viral RNA. Gootenberg calls the Zhang lab test less expensive and quick to use.
To develop the current iteration of the test, Zhang lab researchers switched the Cas protein from a previous iteration. The current version uses acidophilus, a bacillus found in spoiled juices and fruit drinks. It also uses the chemical additive taurine, which is found in some energy drinks.
“I would say it combines a couple of critical breakthroughs with lots and lots of rigorous debugging operations,” Gootenberg said.
They have had to work with a smaller staff. Of the 40 people normally at the Zhang lab, only four are working there currently, all on the COVID-19 team. The McGovern Institute usually numbers seven to eight people, but Gootenberg and Abudayyeh are the only ones currently working there.
It helps that Gootenberg and Abudayyeh have known each other since their undergraduate days at MIT, when they met in their senior year. They stayed in touch after graduating, and after Abudayyeh went to medical school for several years and then to graduate school, they both began working at the Zhang lab. During that time, they have gotten to know about each other’s traditions.
“I’ve been to break-fasts during Ramadan,” Gootenberg said. “Omar really, really likes latkes. It’s a great way for people to interact in the service of science, especially now. You see how the world can come together to make the whole world a better place.”
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