19 Aug 2022

Scientists in South-east awarded funding to speed up Covid-19 testing

Collaborative team to quadruple test speed and increase number of labs able to test without compromising on quality


Dr Lee Coffey

A team of scientists from Waterford Institute of Technology's (WIT) Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) and Eco-Innovation Research Centre (EIRC) have teamed up with University Hospital Waterford (UHW) and WIT-spin out company BioEnz Technologies Ltd to improve the speed of Covid-19 testing.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys TD, announced an investment of €1.4 million in 11 projects under the SFI-coordinated research and innovation response to the pandemic. This investment builds on previous funding and complements the existing research work underway in higher education institutions across the country.

The team will be led by Dr Lee Coffey, a lead scientist in the PMBRC and founder of BioEnz Technologies, a biological solutions company. Funding of €118,000 will be made available for the Expanding lab tests for the virus  project through the joint Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and IDA initiative to tackle the scientific challenges posed by Covid-19.

“The most reliable Covid-19 tests use a technique called polymerase chain reaction or PCR,” explains Dr Coffey.

“The virus is cracked open and the genetic material or RNA is extracted. This is then copied over and over using PCR until it can be detected. However the PCR step is slow and can take over two hours. We aim to speed this up and bring the time down to under 30 minutes.

"We also plan to validate the method on a wider range of equipment, thereby increasing the number of labs capable of testing for Covid-19. With the expertise in the team coming together from WIT, UHW and BIOENZ, we can trial thousands of better test options as quickly as possible.”

The WIT and BioEnz Technologies team will work with the Pathology Department of UHW, led by laboratory manager Patrick Mulhare.

“The global competition for diagnostic tests and reagents is extremely challenging. Increasing test speed without compromising on quality and test accuracy is of vital importance. Given the potential time delay for a vaccine, there will be an increased and ongoing need for extra testing capacity for some time to come,” he said.

Dr Orla O’ Donovan, Biochemist and head of the Department of Science at WIT, brings her 20 years research experience to this project which is building on the strong ongoing collaborations between WIT and UHW.

For molecular biologists Dr David O’Neill, Dr Denise O’Meara, and Dr Andrew Harrington, the project is an opportunity to apply their expertise to this pressing societal challenge.

“We routinely use PCR to address questions relevant to environmental and agricultural research,” said Dr O’Neill. “We are delighted to apply our broad range of molecular expertise and experience to help optimize and improve turn around rates for Covid-19 testing.”

For the award-winning PMBRC, this project is one of a several initiatives taking part within the research centre on COVID-19.

“We have been working on a number of projects with academic and industry partners around the rapid testing for COVID-19 and the formulation of antivirals to treat the disease” said Centre Manager Dr Niall O'Reilly.

“Unfortunately Covid-19 will be with us for some time to come but the project funded here is a great example of a team of scientists coming together to tackle one of the many challenges we face. Hopefully the impact of this and other projects funded under the call will lessen the societal burden of the virus,” he added.

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