New coronavirus testing kits use RNA imaging technology

SFU researcher Lena Dolgosheina.
New coronavirus testing kits use RNA imaging technology

Simon Fraser University researchers will use their pioneering imaging technology—called Mango, for its bright colour— to develop coronavirus testing kits. They’re among a small set of Canadian researchers who responded to the rapid funding opportunity recently announced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to help address COVID-19.

SFU researchers Lena Dolgosheina, a post-doctoral fellow and Peter Unrau, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, developed Mango to sensitively detect RNA molecules, helping to improve viral screening for viruses such as the coronavirus while enabling basic discoveries into the functioning of cells.

The latest research, led by Unrau, involves using Mango to detect individual molecules of RNA within a living cell.

“We are made of molecules so when something goes wrong within a cell it happens at the molecular level, says Unrau. “We are using the Mango system as a catalyst, to allow us to not only extend fundamental research questions but also to detect pathogens like the coronavirus, faster and more efficiently.”

The Mango system consists of an RNA Mango aptamer that binds tightly and specifically to a fluorescent dye. The aptamer acts like a magnet – targeting and binding those dye molecules. The dye becomes excitable when bound and glows brightly. RNA molecules modified to contain the aptamer ‘magnet’ now stand out from the other parts of the cell, which makes it much easier for researchers to see and study RNA molecules under a microscope.

“Cell regulation takes place at the level of RNA,” he says. “For a long time, the focus has been on protein but it is RNA and not protein that regulates the vast majority of processes within a cell.”

RNA Mango dyes are currently available from Applied Biological Materials (ABM) in Richmond, B.C. The coronavirus research made possible by CIHR funding will allow the team to develop an isothermal testing methodology, known as Mango NABSA (nucleic acid sequence-based amplification).

See Also
Schematic and experimental design for MV@GEL as an intranasal mask to intercept viral aerosols and entrap virus. a The intranasal mask (MV@GEL) was composed of engineered cell-derived microsized vesicles (MV) with viral receptor and thermosensitive hydrogel with positive charges. It could be sprayed into the nasal cavity at room temperature and quickly transformed from the liquid state to the gel state at body temperature. The viral receptor of vesicles could help vesicles entrap the virus, and the thermosensitive hydrogel could prolong the retention time of vesicles in the nasal cavity. Once the negative viral aerosols were inhaled, the intranasal mask could perform the protective effect in the following steps: Step 1, the positively charged hydrogel could intercept the negatively charged viral aerosols presenting in airflow; Step 2, those viral aerosols could fuse with MV@GEL and release viruses into MV@GEL; Step 3, the embedded MV in MV@GEL could entrap those released viruses. b The protective effect of the intranasal mask was investigated from the following three aspects. 1. Mouse model: MV@GEL conferred strong protection against viral aerosol infection in the mouse nose and downstream lung; 2. Digital human nasal model: based on computerized tomography (CT) images of the human nasal cavity, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulation supported that viral aerosols could be intercepted in the human nasal cavity under MV@GEL protection; 3. Human respiratory tract model: connecting a realistic human nasal apparatus with human lung organoids and providing respiratory airflow by the pump; the human respiratory tract model was constructed and utilized to demonstrate the good performance of MV@GEL in protecting the lung organoids from viral aerosols. Credit: Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-44134-w

The Mango NABSA kits can be used to test for the coronavirus, which is a positive strand RNA virus. ABM is actively involved with this project as a partner and will supply the enzymes and buffers needed, which the SFU team originally developed.

“Mango technology is state of the art and the development of effective cures for cancer and other diseases demand better imaging methodologies to rapidly learn how cells work in detail,” Unrau adds.

The team’s research is published in Nature Communications.

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