WIT Scientists aim to quadruple Covid 19 test speed

WIT has secured funding from Science Foundation Ireland to speed up Covid testing and increase the number of laboratories able to test without compromising quality and test accuracy.

Pictured from left are Patrick Mulhare, laboratory manager, Pathology Department of University Hospital Waterford, Dr Denise O’Meara, molecular biologist and lecturer in the Department of Science at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Dr Lee Coffey, a lead scientist in WIT’s Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) and founder of BioEnz Technologies. Photo credit: Patrick Browne

WIT has secured funding from the joint Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and IDA initiative to tackle the scientific challenges posed by COVID-19.  Scientists from WIT’s Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) and Eco-Innovation Research Centre (EIRC) will work with University Hospital Waterford (UHW) and WIT spin-out company BioEnz to improve the speed of COVID-19 testing without compromising on quality and test accuracy.   

The team will be led by Dr Lee Coffey, a Lead Scientist at the PMBRC and founder of BioEnz Technologies, a biological solutions company.  “The most reliable COVID-19 tests use a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction or PCR,” explained 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.