LOOK: UPLB Alumna behind COVID-19 Mass Testing Tech in Switzerland

With the ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus disease, an alumna of the University of the Philippines Los Baños is leading the development of a mass testing technology in Switzerland.

This breakthrough is spearheaded by Catherine Aquino-Fournier, a BS Biology graduate of UPLB in 1996 and Genetics in 2003. She is the group leader of the application called HiDRA-seq at the Functional Genomic Center Zurich (FGCZ) – the core facility of the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

How HiDRA-seq works?

According to UPLB alumna, HiDRA-seq detects COVID-19 using the Next Generation Sequencing (NGC), a state of the art DNA sequencing technology. This is the same technology that helps determine the DNA sequence or fingerprint of a cell or an organism. It can analyze billions of DNA fragments from a cell in a matter of hours.

HiDRA-seq’s method of identifying COVID-19 is similar to the real-time reverse transcription polumerase chain reaction (rRT-PCR). Through this, the number of virus particles present in a given sample can already be counted. However, compared to the rRT-PCR wherein the output is a fluorescent intensity, HiDRA-seq provies a COVID-specific sequences. With this, it is easier to determine the strain of the virus depending on the mutations that can be found.

HiDRA-seq skils the extraction of genetic material and simply get straight input from saliva, gargle, or swab which totally decreases the processing time. In addition, this method also has a built-in contact tracing functionality; thereby making it easier to detect where or from whom the virus was contacted.

Aquino-Fournier shared that HiDRA-seq was formed out of the shortage of materials for rRT-PCR. They formed a technique which will not be affected by the supply. Nonetheless, she also stressed that HiDRA-seq is not meant to replace rRT-PCR.

Limitations of HiDRA-seq

While the innovation of HiDRA-seq may seem promising, Aquino-Fournier clarified that it is not meant to replace rRT-PCR – as the method that they have developed is not yet 100% accurate. It lacks genotyping information which enables the mapping of the spread and transmission, including the monitoring of evolution of the etiological agent, which paves crucial for the development of COVID-19 vaccine.

Still, Aquino-Fournier’s project team continuous to seek feedback from experts and collaborated for opportunities to improve the technology that they have developed.

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