A research team led by Carle Illinois College of Medicine Professor Brian Cunningham has developed a rapid, low-cost COVID-antibody test. Researchers say the test could become routine in fighting the virus’ spread.

Brian Cunningham, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Brian Cunningham, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“A simple, rapid, quantitative, and inexpensive test, using only a single droplet of blood, can contribute to enhanced public safety and reduced personal anxiety about immune status,” said Cunningham, professor at the Grainger College of Engineering and Carle Illinois. Cunningham supervised the research conducted at Holonyak Lab at UIUC.

Blood sample antibody testing is an important diagnostic tool for combating the COVID-19 pandemic.Measuring SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies can be useful in detecting immune response in previously infected patients who never exhibited symptoms or who were never tested for COVID-19. Quantifying COVID-19 antibodies is also vital in blood transfusion therapy, sometimes used in treating patients with severe symptoms.

When COVID-19 first developed into a global crisis in early 2020, Cunningham and a group of student researchers was already working on a project funded by the National Institutes for Health to develop a “flu chip” that would rapidly determine the most likely cause of a fever by measuring several proteins within a droplet of blood. The team decided to pivot their efforts to detect COVID-19 antibodies instead.

A few months later, their research produced a test to both detect and measure COVID-19 antibodies in a single drop of blood. “Quantitative assessment of COVID-19 antibody titer is especially important as clinicians and researchers more fully understand the patient-to-patient variability of immune response, in terms of the onset time for post-infection antibody production, and the post-recovery time that antibodies continue to be present,” says Weijing Wang, a bioengineering and Holonyak Lab graduate student.

The new method could make COVID antibody testing more routine. “Compared with other detection methods, our method is a simple, 15-minute sample-to-answer test,” said Bin Zhao, a postdoctoral research associate and IGB Fellow at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at UIUC. “It costs less than $2 per test and is used with a desktop detection system that is suitable for point-of-care situations like clinics and physician offices.”

The test is simple enough to be performed at schools, pharmacies, and parts of the world where diagnostic laboratories are not available. “This is especially important as a variety of vaccines are being offered with widely differing levels of effectiveness, and as new COVID variants emerge,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said the team’s work can also be adapted to detect antibodies to other infections and biomarkers for other diseases like cardiac disease and cancer.

As researchers in the field of disease diagnostics, team members said their mission is to develop innovative analytical methods and tools to provide potentially effective solutions for global public health. The Holonyak Lab research team also included graduate students Congnyu Che and Nantao Li from the departments of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering, respectively.

The group recently published their results in the journal Talanta. Their research findings can be found here.

Adapted from an article by Lizzie Roehrs. You can read the original report here.

Brian Cunningham is also affiliated with The Grainger College of Engineering, the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, the Department of Bioengineering, the Holonyak Micro & Nanotechnology Lab,  Cancer Center at Illinois, and Beckman Institute.