Slovenian researchers involved in new virus identification effort

Maribor, 1 April - Two researchers from the University of Maribor, in cooperation with British and Chines researchers, have come up with a new way of identifying viruses and bacteria. This could speed up the process of determining the type of infection in a patient. The method can also be applied to Covid-19.

Tine Curk and Urban Bren of the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering are members of a team that started their work months ago, but their findings are timely as the method they have developed can be used for coronavirus.

It currently takes a whole day before the results of a coronavirus test are in, while the new approach could significantly speed up the process, Bren, the university's vice-chancellor for the transfer of know-how, told the STA.

By collecting samples from a patient's nose, traces of both the virus and the patient's own cells are gathered. "Those samples contain genetic material of both the virus and the patient, and the patient's prevails.

"Consequently the virus's genetic material must first be multiplied to sufficient quantities in a time-consuming and costly procedure, so test results take until the next day. The results can also be false negatives because there was insufficient genetic material of the virus in the sample," Bren said.

With the new approach, however, there is no need for multiplying the virus's genetic material, as viruses can be traced from even a tiny amount of genetic material.

"The technique used so far is monovalent: the probe forms a strong monovalent bond with the virus's genetic material, whereas we have developed a new method, where the probe forms multivalent bonds with the virus's genetic material, meaning it forms several weaker bonds.

"We proved in the article that this results in superselectivity, which means we need a significantly smaller sample of the virus to detect an infection."

This could make tests more reliable. "Specifically for Covid-19 this means that people would not walk around with the virus for three days before they develop symptoms and realise they are infected. It would also mean that tests would no longer produce false negatives... Tests would become more reliable in the early stages of the infection."

The method can be applied to other viruses and bacteria as well, including for influenza and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. "That too could be detected in a matter of minutes rather than a whole day," Bren said.

Lab tests are already being conducted to transfer this approach into practice as soon as possible. "We are conducting both computer simulations and experiments on genetic material of the new coronavirus. Of course it will take a while before we improve the technique to the point where it can be used in practice, but we are actively working on it," Bren said.

The findings of the team will be published later this week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, only the fourth publication in this high-impact journal for the University of Maribor.