Quicker COVID-19 test: $200K grant could help Jackson State University identify killer virus very fast with optical detection

(JACKSON, Miss.) — The National Science Foundation has awarded JSU’s Department of Chemistry, Physics and Atmospheric Sciences a $200,000 Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to develop a fast, sensitive and simple “optical technique” to detect COVID-19.

Jackson State University professor Dr. Paresh Chandra Ray said a quicker detection is vital to saving lives, especially since the CDC reports that the disease, to date, has killed 124,000 victims in the U.S. and 484,000 people worldwide.

Ray, the grant PI and a researcher in JSU’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, said, “There is an urgent need for a rapid coronavirus test platform throughout the world at this moment.”

His research involves an examination of RNA, a molecule that helps regulate genes.

“This RAPID proposal will develop a sensitive, fast and easy-to-use optical technique to detect viral-RNA using Raman spectroscopy, a method of fingerprinting and identifying COVID-19,” Ray said.

The light-scattering technique provides detailed information about a gene such as its chemical structure and molecular interactions. Consequently, Ray believes JSU can significantly lessen the time it takes to get a positive or negative confirmation of the novel coronavirus. For now, it could take up to seven days to get test results.

In fact, to better understand the current steps for diagnosing COVID-19, NPR recently spoke to a biomedical expert.

Reportedly, a sample is first taken from a patient’s nose or throat using a special swab. After that swab is placed in a tube, it goes to lab. Then, it travels to a laboratory for processing if a hospital doesn’t have a molecular test center. That could take some time depending on location. Once processed, lab workers extract the virus’ RNA. Afterward, technicians meticulously mix special chemicals with each sample and then run those combinations into a machine for a positive or negative COVID-19 diagnosis. All of this takes several days.

Beyond the life-saving benefits of JSU’s ongoing research, Ray said the multidisciplinary nature of the RAPID COVID project is also aimed at enhancing the quality education of minority students at JSU.

“We aim to provide rigorous scientific training,” he said. “One of the major objectives is to increase the skilled workforce in an important field of emerging technology. JSU has a special emphasis on promoting diversity by involving underrepresented minorities. The proposed interdisciplinary research also will focus on mentoring undergraduate and graduate students who, ultimately, may earn terminal degrees and then enter the STEM pipeline.”

For the type of research provided by the RAPID grant, Ray said students may seek careers in materials science, medicine, the biotech industry and government labs.

Ray said the urban HBCU is fully capable of carrying out such successful experiments. Although his JSU group hasn’t worked on COVID-19, it has researched other viruses, parasites and bacteria.

For example, over the past few years, the JSU group already has developed a “nanostructure materials-based approach that holds promise for diagnosing and inactivating pathogenic viruses, and neutralizing parasitic and drug-resistant bacteria.”

He said that by using a “bio-conjugated nanostructure-based approach researchers can identify different pathogenic microorganisms such as the Dengue virus.” Such research has resulted in effective treatment of the mosquito-borne tropical disease, which is associated with high fever, headaches, vomiting, muscle and joint pains, and a particular skin rash.

So, with so much past success, Ray said JSU is optimistic that the current RAPID grant will provide a “broad range of emerging detection capabilities for responding to and preventing COVID-19.”

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