UC Berkeley scientists spin up a robotic COVID-19 testing lab

Matthew N. Henry

As medical professionals close to the nation scramble to diagnose scenarios of COVID-19, experts at the University of California, Berkeley’s Progressive Genomics Institute (IGI) are producing from scratch a diagnostic lab with the ability to process far more than 1,000 patient samples for each working day.

This pop-up laboratory, the effort and hard work of a one of a kind volunteer group of academic and company companions, will give desperately desired tests capability in the Bay Space for people with COVID-19 signs and also support community health and fitness officers evaluate how widespread the epidemic is.

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), portrayed in an illustration produced at the Centers for Condition Handle and Prevention. Image credit rating: Alissa Eckert, MS Dan Higgins, MAM

“The UC Berkeley group is racing to tackle this significant community health and fitness scenario by developing a tests lab that will be right away impactful in our neighborhood, although also making knowledge that contributes to understanding the distribute of the SARS-CoV-two virus,” stated Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and mobile biology and of chemistry and IGI executive director. SARS-CoV-two is the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19.

Many thanks to the crisis modification of state and federal regulations and California’s declared state of crisis, the IGI was ready to husband or wife with clinicians at University Wellbeing Products and services, UC Berkeley’s pupil health and fitness heart, and both equally local and nationwide companies to deliver in the robotic and analytical tools desired, create a harmless and robust pipeline for medical sample intake and processing, attain the needed regulatory approvals and prepare a crew of really qualified experts accustomed to conducting essential investigate to evaluate patient swabs with a brief-turnaround purpose of fewer than 24 hours.

A sketch of the coronavirus, dubbed SARS-CoV-two, that leads to COVID-19. The brighter blobs surrounding the virus are the “spike” proteins that give coronaviruses their title and which allow the virus to enter cells. The lighter orange blobs are other proteins embedded in the viral envelope.Image credit rating: Desiree Ho, UC Berkeley

The experts — far more than 50 volunteers from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and local knowledge administration companies — program to exam their 1st real viral samples early this week and aim for certification beneath the Medical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) plan by upcoming week.

Although the tests lab will concentrate in the beginning on samples from pupils and other members of the UC Berkeley neighborhood, the group is by now coordinating with medical centers close to the East Bay to at some point supply fast turnaround to also meet their diagnostic desires.

“We mobilized a group of gifted academic experts, partnered with professionals from companies and pulled collectively, in a make any difference of a several days, a team that is working like a biotech corporation. It is actually a impressive tale,” stated Doudna, who is also a Howard Hughes Health care Institute investigator.

The lab will operate tests based on a process accepted by the Food and Drug Administration, but with higher throughput than several professional labs, some of which still have to operate samples manually, one particular at a time. The significant-throughput machines, some sourced from campus investigate labs, can exam far more than 300 samples at when and give the diagnostic outcome in fewer than four hours from receipt of patient swabs. Applying robotics and a streamlined process, the IGI pop-up lab will soon complete 1,000 checks every day, with the capacity to ramp up to 3,000 checks for each working day if necessary.

“We are implementing an current exam in a way that leverages robotics and fast turnaround occasions so that we can produce final results immediately to medical centers close to the East Bay and give a significant company to our neighborhood in this time of need,” Doudna stated.

“This is just an awesome possibility,” stated Man Nicolette, UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for University Wellbeing Products and services. “I am astonished at how immediately Berkeley was ready to mobilize and to choose benefit of the more recent principles in buy to innovate far more immediately. The lab side of issues has been so reliant on human guide do the job that this would be a video game changer in a ton of ways.”

Specified limitations on the amount of exam kits readily available in California and evolving pointers on who should be tested, medical personnel at UHS’s Tang Centre have to date despatched out only a couple of dozen swabs from pupils for tests by local professional labs. One particular was returned as constructive for the SARS-CoV-two virus that leads to COVID-19. But according to Nicolette, turnaround in the Bay Space has assorted commonly and can exceed a week, leaving symptomatic people and clinicians doubtful of their standing, generally producing stress and anxiety.

He is optimistic that the on-campus diagnostic lab will allow considerably wider tests that will give a better picture of how commonplace the virus is, supplied that several persons undergo mild or no signs, nonetheless can be contagious. Massive-scale tests has been vital to the capacity of other countries to handle the distribute of sickness by figuring out infected people, he stated.

“There are other factors of broader tests that would be so clinically powerful,” he stated. “We could make better choices about health and fitness, about do the job, about probably how extensive we need to keep on to socially distance, based on what we obtain.”

The electricity of automation and robotics

The IGI’s scientific director for engineering and translation, Fyodor Urnov, performed a main function in mobilizing resources — tools, persons and cash — just after a March thirteen meeting of 59 persons inside of the institute. The fundamental procedure desired to exam for a virus — isolating RNA from a sample and amplifying it employing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — is schedule in dozens of labs at most universities. The vital, Urnov stated, was to immediately determine out how to scale and automate the process for medical use.

UC Berkeley labs possessing significant-throughput PCR machines donated their tools to the induce, although IGI set up robotic sample managing as nicely as safe knowledge administration.

“We threw our R&D (investigate and progress) state of mind into understanding how we can scale it up and speed up it, mainly because we understood this essential need of the medical neighborhood,” stated Urnov, a professor of molecular and mobile biology who used 15 yrs in the biotech marketplace right before coming to UC Berkeley. “Who we are as experts actually related to an unmet need.”

Medical tests of patient samples is really controlled, necessitating CLIA certification not only of lab experts, but of the real laboratory room, tools and high-quality handle techniques. Although the Tang Centre has two CLIA-licensed lab experts, the heart does not have a Biosafety Degree two (BSL2) lab needed for tests viruses like SARS-CoV-two.

Many thanks to the new regulations, on the other hand, the Tang Center’s certification is staying extended to the BSL2 lab in the IGI, and the experts who volunteered to do the tests are now taking an accelerated instruction plan to be ready to work the tools 24/7, if necessary.

Apart from quickly turnaround, Urnov stated, the key concentrate is accuracy, one thing that dogged the Centers for Condition Handle and Prevention’s initial exam kits and delayed widespread tests for a significant month at the beginning of the epidemic in the United States.

“We have controls for our controls,” he stated. ”A ton of do the job has absent into ensuring that we are exact when we notify clinicians no matter whether their patient is constructive or negative.”

As Urnov and his group ramp up diagnostics, other researchers at UC Berkeley have damaged into about a dozen “rapid investigate reaction teams” to concentrate on other COVID-connected investigate assignments, which includes achievable improved diagnostics, new drugs to deal with the an infection and ways to produce drugs to people.

“We are chatting about a team of far more than one hundred persons who are actively taking part in investigate assignments, which includes persons from UCSF, Stanford and the Gladstone Institutes,” Doudna stated. “These longer-term assignments tackle the ongoing need to realize this household of viruses and to get ready for long run outbreaks now.”

Source: UC Berkeley

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