The laboratory team at Northampton General Hospital (NGH), including young biomedical scientists Eleanor and Lottie, have launched a new rapid test for COVID-19. The new testing process slashes 44 hours off the original, taking testing times down to just 4 hours!
Before this rapid testing was possible samples had to be sent to external labs, with results coming in 2 days later. The team at NGH have been working hard installing new equipment which identifies the COVID-19-specific gene, giving highly accurate results.
Lottie, who has been working in the NGH labs for 4 years, said that it feels great to be able to 'produce quick results which benefit(s) the patients care... and give back to the community of Northamptonshire.'
"This rapid diagnosis will help our teams to plan for surgery, make the best use of PPE and... [help with] the next steps of patient care."
The speed of this new test comes from RT PCR (real-time polymerase chain reaction). This process is like a biological photocopier, making copies of strands of DNA or RNA. In this case, the target sequence that we want to copy is the Sars-Cov-2-e gene (virus RNA).
A fluorescent dye is designed to bind to the target sequence so that a computer is able to detect an increase in the sequence. Because this happens in real-time, the process from sample to result is able to be relatively speedy. If the results show an increase in fluorescence, the test result is positive for COVID-19. Lottie assures us that 'it sounds complicated, but they have it down to a slick process'!
Coronavirus is a respiratory virus, so is transmitted through droplets. This means that virus particles are most likely to be found in the nose and throat. Testing for coronavirus simply involves swabbing the patient's nose and throat with a long, sterile cotton bud.
When handling the samples, lab staff need to be vigilant with their PPE, changing gloves and gowns regularly, to protect themselves and avoid sample contamination. They also make use of a fume cabinet, which keeps air flowing through and reducing the chances of contaminating the lab.
The speedy new diagnostic tool allows doctor's and nurses to work-out patient treatment plans sooner, saving crucial time. Dr David Thomas, Divisional Director at NGH, explained that "By having this rapid testing facility on-site, we can make sure our patients are on the correct treatment pathway. With a quicker diagnosis, we know which wards our patients need to go to so we can provide the best care for them in the right place. This rapid diagnosis will help our teams to plan for surgery, make the best use of PPE and in some cases help with more difficult discussions on the next steps of patient care." He also proudly revealed, "We have completed over 170 tests in the first three days and hope to scale up this testing soon."
This could be you! Lottie got to where she is today via a Biomedical science degree, with a year in placement. Her big tip to you is to keep an eye out for labs offering student placements and make sure your degree is accredited by IBMS. You too could be a 'swab detective', providing an essential step in healthcare.