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The scale of the challenge for clinical diagnostics labs around the world quickly became apparent when the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic hit in 2020. Assays to identify the virus were rapidly developed to isolate patients and monitor the spread of the virus but, with shortages of reagents and labware, and the sheer number of samples expected, scaled-up testing was desperately needed. Thermo Fisher Scientific supplies labs with the qPCR equipment that was central to testing, but wanted to do more to support the global efforts, and so set about developing a solution for high throughput screening.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of biosurveillance to understand, control and limit the spread of human diseases. In response to the pandemic, the laboratories at PTP Science Park in Lodi, Italy, quickly enhanced their set-up, introducing various assays to gain a deeper understanding of the virus. Researchers now not only diagnose COVID-19, but also measure anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels after infection and vaccination to learn about the pathogenesis of the disease and how our immune systems respond to infection.
When the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic hit in 2020, researchers from the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands, felt compelled to support the national COVID-19 testing strategy, which was suffering with limited capacity. Recognizing that the gold standard PCR test worked well to identify SARS-CoV-2 positive patients, the institute’s challenges lay in the logistics and a need to automate the process. A fortuitous introduction to an automation expert from Genmab was the start of a successful collaboration, which grew to involve a number of additional partners, and has significantly increased the capacity of SARS-CoV-2 testing in the Netherlands through the development of the STRIP-1 robot.
The race has been on since the start of the pandemic to develop vaccines and drugs to fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Vaccine development has proven successful, with vaccine roll-out underway in many countries, but the need remains to identify drugs that can treat the disease for those who have not been vaccinated, or for those where the vaccine is not effective enough to prevent disease. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology (ITMP) in Hamburg, Germany, have been using high throughput drug approaches to screen compound libraries for candidate antiviral drugs.
The advent of new genetics technologies has exploded in the last decade. Since the unravelling of the human genome project in 2003, and with recent discoveries in the field of epigenetics, we are starting to understand not only how and when genes are expressed, but which post-translational modifications are important in disease, and how we can manipulate them therapeutically. Professor Christopher E Mason has developed new technologies to catalog genetic and epigenetic changes caused by everything from cancers to novel viruses, and these tools have proven invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to look at laboratory routines to see if they are really pandemic proof. For example, the explosive demand for high throughput genomic analysis often creates upstream pressures to process many more samples and prepare high quality DNA. The rapid shutdown of non-essential workplaces and services, coupled with the surge in demand for laboratory testing, put immense strain on multiple aspects of normal laboratory operations, such as strict rules on the need for personal protective equipment – which was in limited supply – and required physical distancing. Consumables stocks and reagents also dwindled, as they were being used at a much faster rate and supply chains were affected by global demand. Now that the limitations of current laboratory routines have been highlighted, it’s time to consider how to make laboratories pandemic proof.
SARS-CoV-2 has hit the world by storm and testing has had a major part to play in the fight against the virus, helping to track cases and slow rates of infection. ABC Labs, based at the Karolinska campus in Stockholm, was founded soon after the start of the pandemic with the specific purpose of establishing large scale and high quality PCR and ELISA COVID-19 testing in Sweden. The laboratory analyzes thousands of tests on a daily basis in partnership with the country’s Public Health Agency and a number of regional and private healthcare providers, to help stop the virus.
UK Biocentre has been central to the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, repurposing its entire facility to become a national center for SARS-CoV-2 molecular testing. To help meet an ambitious target of 100,000 tests per day across the country, the organization has established a new mega-lab, partnering with Tecan to design and commission a suite of liquid handling automation platforms in just a few weeks.
The emergence and outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 at the end of 2019 has created an urgent need for testing to help limit the spread of COVID-19. AusDiagnostics has used its patented, multiplexed-tandem PCR technology to develop a test to detect SARS-CoV-2 and distinguish between the different causes of coronavirus-like infections.
The COVID-19 pandemic has required an unprecedented level of collaboration within the scientific community, as labs around the world aim to characterize and understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to develop and implement new diagnostic tests, therapeutics and vaccines. This cooperative approach has led to some unexpected partnerships, as techniques and knowhow from across numerous disciplines are brought together to accelerate research and testing activities. Professor Nir Friedman’s team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been at the center of one such situation, using its knowledge of workflow automation from investigating yeast genomics to develop a novel large-scale sequencing-based assay for the detection of SARS-CoV-2.
The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe has highlighted the need for the rapid development of new diagnostic tests, therapeutics and vaccines in response to emerging infectious diseases. Advanced gene assembly techniques represent a powerful tool to aid these efforts, and are currently allowing the construction of synthetic SARS-CoV-2 genomes for research and development activities. Codex DNA is at the forefront of this approach, using its knowhow and BioXp™ 3200 system to supply labs across the globe with the gene constructs required to accelerate the design and optimization of vaccines and treatments.
The ever-increasing throughput and ever-decreasing cost of next generation sequencing have made this technology a practical and affordable solution for everything from molecular diagnostics and antimicrobial susceptibility testing to crop research and environmental monitoring. For many of these applications, the bottleneck in the workflow – which can account for considerable hidden costs – lies in sample extraction. Tecan has partnered with Zymo Research to offer labs an automated and optimized solution for nucleic acid processing.