Health authorities around the world are looking frantically for a way to protect their residents from Covid-12019 – the new type of coronavirus that has so far infected over 75,000 people and killed 1,770. There is no specific treatment and no protective vaccine, but the sooner people are diagnosed, the easier it will be to contain the deadly virus and prevent it from infecting more people.

Photo of Dr. Danielli (courtesy: Bar-Ilan U)

Diagnosing coronavirus takes about an hour using current methods. Time is of the essence. But a new technology developed in Israel – based on a combination of optics and magnetic particles – can test 100 saliva samples of patients potentially infected with the virus and reduce the diagnostic time to just 15 minutes.

There are now seven known types of coronavirus (corona is the Latin for “crown,” and the viruses have a crown-like points around the surface), including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) 

The new technology was developed by Dr. Amos Danielli of the Alexander Kofkin Faculty of Engineering at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. The technology has already been proven to reduce the diagnostic time of Zika virus and is currently being used in the Health Ministry central virology laboratory at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.

Danielli’s lab developed the technology for sensitive detection of virus-specific sequences of RNA – ribonucleic acid is a polymeric molecule essential in various biological roles in coding, decoding, regulation and expression of genes in all living cells – by attaching the virus’s RNA to a fluorescent molecule that emits light when illuminated by a laser beam. At very low concentrations of RNA, the signal emitted is so low that existing devices cannot detect it. 

“If we think of the saliva of a coronavirus patient filling an entire room, then this laser beam can be compared to the size of a fist and at low concentrations of virus RNA, there might be only two or three fluorescent molecules within that fist,” explained Danielli.  Adding magnetic particles to the solution enables them to adhere to the fluorescent molecules.  This makes possible a greater concentration of fluorescent molecules and a much more accurate measurement.    

These main goals guided him in developing this technology – simplifying the diagnostic process and making it more accurate. “This development relies on the use of two small electromagnets – magnets powered by an electric current. By properly positioning them, we were able to create a strong magnetic field and collect all the thousands of fluorescent molecules from the entire solution and aggregate them inside the laser beam, thereby multiplying the signal strength by several orders of magnitude.”

Instead of pumping the solution, they alternately operated the electromagnets, once on the left and once on the right, moving the molecules from side to side, in and out of the laser beam.  As they pass through the laser beam they become illuminated. “When they exit the light beam, they are no longer illuminated. This flickering allows us, without any additional procedures, to accurately determine whether a person has been exposed to coronavirus,” he continued. 

The high sensitivity of the platform and its ease of operation facilitate its use in point of care applications where resources are limited. To provide doctors with an alternative method for accurate detection, Danielli’s group is also collaborating with European universities to identify antibodies that the immune system produces against coronavirus. 

While the Bar-Ilan University engineer develops kits to identify various diseases, such as the Zika and coronavirus, MagBiosense, a medical device company, is creating a device the size of a home coffee machine that will be based on Danielli’s technology. Currently, Danielli is looking for an investor to accelerate the development of the coronavirus kit, so it can quickly be introduced in hospitals.