UMass Amherst Chemists Mobilize Quickly to Find Simple, ‘Smart Swab’ Detector for COVID By-products

NSF grant funds research aiming to create color-changing swabs to detect exposure
Thai graphic

AMHERST, Mass. – Three researchers in the chemistry department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have teamed up to investigate whether they can develop a simple, color-changing test swab for COVID-19 in the next year that would alert users if their body carries a viral product left after infection.  

To support the work, Sankaran "Thai" Thayumanavan, Jeanne Hardy and Trisha L. Andrew received a one-year, $198,000 RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), designed to quickly fund promising approaches to an emergency. As NSF explains, RAPID supports proposals “having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.”

The three UMass Amherst researchers, each bringing complementary expertise to the team, are seeking “a cheap test that will tell if you should get checked by medical professionals because you are probably infected,” said  Thayumanavan. Andrew adds, “Like a pregnancy test, but for viral infection.”

They stress that this is a research effort. “We are being very careful to point out that we are working on a general solution for detecting viral infections, which can be easily customized to specific viruses and then rapidly mobilized in times of dire need,” says Hardy. Andrew adds, “We are building up the basic science and chemistry needed for anyone to rapidly mass-produce tests that can be used at home. This concept certainly applies to the current COVID-19 pandemic but can also be relevant to future outbreaks.”

Learning of the grant from NSF, Congressman Jim McGovern said, “This important grant is a testament to the amazing research work being done at UMass Amherst. We’re lucky to have some of the best scientists in the world working to address the COVID-19 pandemic right here in Massachusetts, and this promising proposal is a great example of why we need to strongly support and fund the work of the National Science Foundation.”

Robin L. McCarley, program director in NSF’s chemical measurement and imaging program, adds, “NSF supports this line of research because the funding allows for developing strategies to address highly complex biological challenges with broad impacts on society, as a result of designing chemical analysis systems that take advantage of the fundamental properties of biology at the molecular level.”

The UMass Amherst team will collaborate in phases, beginning with the Hardy lab’s expertise in proteases as a basic foundation, she says. Proteases are proteins made by many organisms including viruses to help them copy themselves and multiply, she notes. Often called “molecular scissors,” they identify precise locations on other proteins and cut them into pieces there, she adds.

“Different viruses make different proteases, so we can target which virus has been present. We can test for the specific protease made by SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19,” Hardy says. She is quick to add that her lab does not use an active virus, but only the protease “scissor,” which is “not at all dangerous.” Basic unknowns, she notes, include how long viral proteases linger in the body after exposure, and how much protease is produced by an infected individual.

Once a protease is identified, the project turns to Thayumanavan’s lab, where he and colleagues have for many years focused on chemical signals and sensors. They are designing “reporter molecules” with chemical properties that change during the protease break-down process. In this case, the colorless reporter molecule will turn magenta after a virus-related protease cut.

“Imagine a Lego manufacturer making blocks,” he says. “Imagine they come out as one long piece instead of individual blocks. The viral protease is the scissor that cuts that long piece into smaller blocks, which then self-assemble into spheres that are new copies of the virus. Because the viral protease cuts at a very specific place, we can design reporters that mimic that cut site and generate color changes when the protease cuts it,” he adds.

Next, Hardy and Thayumanavan then look to Andrew to transform their chemistry into an inexpensive test platform. She says, “I figure out how to integrate sophisticated electronics and chemical sensors into textiles. For this project, we thought cotton swabs would be perfect because everyone understands how to use them and we can make many of them very quickly. Once we have a reporter molecule from Thai that will react to the presence of Jeanne’s viral protease, I can use it to modify commercial swabs.”

Thayumanavan adds, “If we work out the science well, there won’t be a lab required. These ‘smart swabs’ should be like a pregnancy test where you get the answer in five minutes.” If all goes as hoped, a next phase will require clinical testing, an expensive but necessary step, he says.

Because of the urgency of the situation, Thayumanavan says, the team is seeking permission to conduct necessary experiments in their labs on campus. He says they will work on a reduced scale with minimal staff, less than 20 percent of normal levels.

Each of the researchers belongs to one of the three core centers at the campus’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences – Thayumanavan at the Center for Bioactive Delivery, Hardy at the Models to Medicine Center and Andrew at the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, reflecting how the entire institute is addressing this research problem.