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MSU Researcher Seeks Faster Coronavirus Test

Dr. Brett Etchebarne photo
Courtesy photo
Dr. Brett Etchebarne in his MSU Biomedical Engineering Bulding lab.

Researchers are trying to find ways to test more people for Coronavirus, and to get results faster.

Dr. Brett Etchebarne is a biomedical engineering researcher at Michigan State University. He also works in emergency rooms at both McLaren and Sparrow Hospitals in Lansing, and has been treating COVID-19 patients. WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Dr. Etchebarne about how he hopes to improve Coronavirus testing.

SCOTT POHL: You're working on ways that you hope will lead to faster ways of testing people for Coronavirus. What can you tell me about that?

DR. BRETT ETCHEBARNE: My research as an emergency medicine physician has been directed toward rapid point of care diagnostics of infection for the better part of probably eight years now. We've previously focused on specific pathogens affecting your lungs, pneumonia or urinary tract infections, wounds, etc. When COVID arose, it was immediately apparent that we would need to consider this as a respiratory pathogen causing people to have pneumonia-type symptoms, using our methods which are based on genetic analysis and using advanced polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which is a molecular diagnostic technique that is pretty well developed. We've used this advanced one using isothermal amplification and tailored it to the COVID infection. We want to get our results in a ten or 15 minutes sort of time period for any pathogen, this one being no different. We were able to make a test, and so far, it looks to be able to identify this pathogen in five to seven minutes, using machinery that are readily available to most molecular diagnostics laboratories.

POHL: I also understand that you can test multiple people at the same time with this application. Would that be correct?

ETCHEBARNE: It looks at this time that we've probably got a pretty solid platform that's going to be able to test at least 24 samples at one time. Theoretically, we should be able to get this diagnosis done more quickly and expeditiously for the the hospital scenario and eventually, even probably in the outpatient scenario.

POHL: I want to make sure I understand you correctly. It sounded like you might be coming up with a way that hospitals and others can use equipment they already have.

ETCHEBARNE: Yes, you're correct. We can use a thermal cycler, which is a commonly used laboratory piece of equipment; we can also use a more advanced thermal cycler called a real time PCR unit also, which is available at most clinical and diagnostic laboratories. And, we're hoping to get even a methodology that's tried and true for using a hot plate sort of platform that would allow diagnosis of the infection without using more expensive and fancy equipment.

POHL: So for widespread distribution of this methodology, it would be a simple matter of, it almost sounds like sending out a recipe to people how to use the equipment they already have.

ETCHEBARNE: Yes, that could be one way of doing it. Otherwise, it could be that you would need to prepare the kits for distribution and have the clinical laboratories use these preset kits for their analysis.

POHL: Would this require FDA approval?

ETCHEBARNE: Yes, I certainly would want to have FDA approval before launching any sort of formal testing. In this case, we've done all of our testing to meet the criteria necessary for submission to the FDA for emergency authorization use. Once these results have been generated, and presuming they are all up to par for FDA approval, I would presume that testing could commence afterward, so we do have one more step at least in the process before we can move into higher throughput clinical operation.

POHL: Do you have even a wild guess as to when that might actually occur?

ETCHEBARNE: I'm hoping that within the next week we will be able to commence with testing at a certified clinical laboratory space. After those results are gathered, we can formally submit an emergency authorization use application to the FDA, which I believe can then subsequently be approved, hopefully in a couple of weeks after that.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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