Uni developing coronavirus test using lasers

A DIAGNOSTIC test using lasers being developed by James Cook University could determine if a patient is infected with COVID-19 within seconds.

JCU's Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), in conjunction with the University of Queensland, has landed a $US100,000 research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop laser-based methods of rapid diagnosis of parasitic worm infections in humans.

Dr Paul Giacomin is working on laser diagnostic technology. 

Picture: Claudia Baxter
Dr Paul Giacomin is working on laser diagnostic technology. Picture: Claudia Baxter

The technology, using near infra-red (NIR) spectroscopy, has already been shown to effectively determine whether mosquitoes are carrying zika virus.

Cairns-based project leader Dr Paul Giacomin, from the AITHM, said the technology would allow clinicians to rapidly diagnose patients infected with other pathogens, including parasitic worms and viruses, using lasers.


"It can be very messy and laborious to diagnose a person infected with a worm - it can take a couple of days," he said.

"The advantage of this technology is you can take a blood sample, for example, and shine this laser on it and you can measure the light that comes out of the sample, which should, in theory, allow you to distinguish what a person is infected with, how much a person is infected, and whether a person is infected with multiple things."

He said the technology could also have other applications within healthcare, such as diagnosing a patient with a coronavirus infection within seconds.

"At the moment, when people get a swab to test them for coronavirus, it can take 2-3 days," he said.

"It's similar to a worm infection … where a specimen is taken to a lab, DNA is extracted.

"What we're trying to think of, is a point of care diagnostic as opposed to giving a sample and finding out what the infection is, a week later."

It could take some years, however, before a COVID-19 rapid diagnostic test using NIR spectroscopy can be developed for clinical use.

Dr Giacomin said the research grant JCU had received from the Gates Foundation was to develop a proof-of-concept.

"The way that we're doing it, we're not going into the field to see whether it works," he said. "We're using control samples in a very simple setting.

"It's still a number of years away from being developed.

"But the tools we need for this are fairly simple: it's just a spectrometer.

"We just need ways of processing and collecting these samples, so that a pathology lab - which already has these spectrometers - can appropriately analyse it."

It's not the first time JCU has received a grant from the Gates Foundation.

The AITHM's research on developing a vaccine for malaria has been funded by the charity, and the organisation has also helped fund dengue control work.

Originally published as JCU developing coronavirus test using lasers