Imagine if you could simply spit on a stick and minutes later discover whether or not you had COVID-19.
OK, so it may not be a stick, but the handheld, diagnostic cartridge that Dr. Dylan Pillai’s lab and its spin-off company, Illucidx, have been toiling on is, indeed, the size of your palm. And it’s almost as simple and as fast as a pregnancy test. Here’s how it works: You take a nose or throat swab, smear it onto a skinny, microfluidic cartridge and pop that into a toaster-like contraption at a pharmacy and presto! — within minutes, you have the results.
“That’s the dream,” says Pillai, MD, PhD, research lead and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine. One of the many pivots his eight-person lab and Illucidx have taken this year was to adapt a version of this cartridge to be used as a rapid COVID-19 test. The cartridge was originally intended for use in a massive trial to test for malaria amongst pregnant women in Ethiopia but Pillai and his team recognized the immense potential of pivoting the technology to help in the COVID-19 fight.
The new technology is already in use; Illucidx’s platform technology was one of several types of tests used by the 52,000 Albertans who were screened in the International Border Testing Pilot Program that accelerated the quarantine timeline for travellers arriving at Calgary International Airport.
Precision testing made accessible
“We use a chemistry called loop mediated amplification (LAMP),” explains Cody Doolan, MSc’20, CEO of Illucidx. LAMP detects the viral genetic material from a nasopharyngeal (nose/throat) swab or saliva.
Unlike other antigen tests, LAMP’s level of detection is ultra-sensitive and über-specific — and it does not require expensive laboratory equipment to be seen. By tweaking the chemistry involved, the hardware could be used for sexually transmitted infections, strep throat, or the next pandemic. With such a flexible platform and LAMP’s ability to adapt to clinical needs or market fluctuations, it’s less expensive to operate, which translates to more people being tested.
Describing Illucidx as a social enterprise, Pillai is emphatic that this diagnostic testing technology be used to serve some public-health good, which is precisely where his original interest lay in testing pregnant women for malaria in low- and middle-income countries.
“Those were our roots,” agrees Doolan, who was previously a graduate student in Pillai’s lab. “The question we have always asked ourselves has been: how can we improve health outcomes in neglected populations? And, with COVID, it’s much the same: how do we provide useful diagnostic tools that will improve health outcomes and save costs?”
That brand of socially conscious, outside-the-box thinking is in the Snyder Institute’s DNA, so to speak — no surprise, considering its philanthropic roots. A visionary gift from Joan Snyder in 2008 helped position the Institute at the forefront of infectious disease research. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, its researchers were again breaking ground.
The Institute is home to a highly specialized lab — one of just a few in Canada — that enables scientists to study the complete life cycle of the virus. Over the past year, Institute members have been tapped to research and implement countermeasures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19; to improve detection, diagnosis and treatment; and to study how the virus affects and is transmitted by children.