Lacking compounds for virus tests, Jerusalem scientists use tiny magnets instead
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Lacking compounds for virus tests, Jerusalem scientists use tiny magnets instead

Hebrew University professors say their homemade solution will reduce dependence on international markets

Hebrew University COVID-19 testing process in action (Screenshot)
Hebrew University COVID-19 testing process in action (Screenshot)

As Israel struggles to obtain materials for coronavirus testing, Hebrew University researchers say they have come up with a largely homemade solution that will reduce dependence on international markets.

“Testing kits are great but they are running out worldwide,” said Naomi Habib, professor at Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science. “Our solution is something which is mostly homemade, so more easily available and cheaper than the kits.”

Habib said that her methodology will be adopted Tuesday at a Hebrew University lab that processes tests for Hadassah Hospital, and if embraced by other labs, could prove a significant help in solving Israel’s testing bottleneck.

Figures released by the Health Ministry on Saturday showed the number of coronavirus test results published per day continued to decline in recent days — with only 5,980 results published Friday, down from a high of almost 10,000 on April 3, and far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s aim of 30,000. This admission came days after revelations by the Health Ministry that reagents needed to process tests were in short supply.

Naomi Habib, professor at Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science (Moshe Wolcowitz)

One solution has been to start local production of reagents. But Hebrew University’s answer is to change the lab process so that complex reagents are only needed in one of the two stages.

When samples arrive at a lab, scientists need to extract the ribonucleic acid, RNA, so that it can be analyzed. They have mostly relied until now on specially produced test kits or reagents. But for years Habib and another professor, Nir Friedman, have been using tiny magnetic beads to extract RNA for their research — as have other academics elsewhere.

“The tiny magnetic beads can actually extract the RNA,” Habib explained.

Nir Friedman, professor at Hebrew University’s Institute of Life Sciences and School of Engineering and Computer Science (Yael Friedman)

They tweaked the process for material from swabs, which contain all sorts of matter from patients’ throats and noses and are far harder to deal with than the “very clean” research materials they usually process, said Habib.

Another hurdle was that coronavirus test materials are placed in strong chemicals to control the growth of the virus for safety reasons, and it was hard to get the magnetic beads to work through the chemicals.

The team succeeded, and was able to use the beads to extract the RNA and then wash it off the beads and ready it for stage two of the lab process. This is analysis of the RNA, which still requires reagents.

Friedman and his colleagues used beads to extract RNA from 400 samples that were also processed using test kits and got identical results. It also found that the bead method extracted RNA ready for analysis several times faster than most other methods, taking 30 minutes for 96 samples.

Friedman, who is professor at Hebrew University’s Institute of Life Sciences and School of Engineering and Computer Science, said: “The basic idea has been used before, but we’ve changed the makeup of the liquids, the washing protocol for the beads and the extraction protocol for the RNA. This has to be tailored to the specific RNA that is wanted.”

He said it is probable that some of the test kits on the market use magnetic beads, and said that his team isn’t claiming to have invented a new method of testing, but said it has achieved a practical breakthrough by making an existing technique accessible using easily available materials.

He commented: “It’s a breakthrough in the sense it will enable smooth operations of labs in Israel and wider if they adopt it, but it’s one part of a set of wider challenges related to the pandemic.”

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