A new COVID test that is more sensitive and works under more extreme environmental conditions than existing antibody-based tests has been developed by university researchers.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan’s PrintCity have worked with a team of experts led by Newcastle University to increase the sensitivity in current antibody-based tests, which means they can sometimes fail to detect early infections with low viral loads.

The research, published in the ACS Sensors Journal, has led to the development of a rapid test that relies on molecularly imprinted polymer nanoparticles, known as nanoMIPs, rather than antibodies for detection, making it more accurate than the current lateral flow versions.

NanoMIPs are artificial antibodies, which have advantages over traditional antibodies including easy preparation, increased reliability and lower costs.

While the Newcastle University team led on the development of the tests, researchers at Manchester Metropolitan created and supplied screen-printed electrodes (SPEs), which are measurement devices produced by printing different types of conductive inks on to a plastic base.

SPEs are cheaper to produce than current lateral flow tests, which must now be paid for rather than being free as previously was the case, with research showing how their durability, robustness and sensitivity help the new tests achieve greater detection limits.

Professor Craig Banks, Professor of Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “Our extensive range of facilities and expertise at PrintCity has enabled us to support this project alongside the wide spectrum of products, models and prototypes we produce for a variety of industries.

“We have been delighted to have been part of this multidisciplinary team led by Dr Marloes Peeters to realise a rapid antigen test for screening COVID-19 which has clear benefits over existing technologies.”

The project received funding and support from Newcastle University, the Rosetrees Trust, the Welcome Trust and the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique.

Lead author Dr Marloes Peeters, Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering, said: “We have developed a new type of Covid-19 test which has many advantages over current lateral flow tests. For example, lateral flow tests use biological antibodies to trap and detect the Covid-19 virus, whereas we use a synthetic alternative known as polymer antibodies.

“This allows for a test which is as fast at 15 minutes and cheap as a lateral flow test but can detect 6000-times smaller amounts of the Covid-19 virus. Consequently, this will improve test accuracy, particularly for asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals.

“Moreover, synthetic antibodies are very robust which means the tests have a longer shelf-life, and can be used in hot climates with no issues and will not produce false-positive results in acidic media, such as soft drinks. Additionally, the polymer antibodies can be easily adapted for any new Covid-19 variants or other emerging pathogens.”

Francesco Canfarotta, Head of Chemistry at technology company and project partner MIP Diagnostics, added: “We are continually expanding our range of nanoMIPs to not only adapt to future COVID-19 mutations, but to also identify other respiratory conditions that present with similar symptoms. This will enable early diagnosis and administration of the correct treatment much more rapidly in the future.”


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