UCLA scientists develop innovative COVID-19 testing method

Oct 9, 2020
Professor Sri Kosuri
Technology created by Professor Sri Kosuri’s UCLA-founded startup company Octant leads to the development of a faster and cheaper COVID-19 testing technique.
Kosuri, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is co-founder and CEO of Octant, which created the technology on which the testing technique, called SwabSeq, is based. He was recently interviewed on Fox Business News about the technology. 
A biologist who has helped build technologies, labs, and companies in synthetic biology, functional genomics, and bioinformatics over the last 20 years, Kosuri is passionate about developing more rational ways to understand and engineer biology. His lab at UCLA has worked on building large-scale ways of empirically exploring questions in protein biochemistry, human genetic variation, gene regulation, chemical biology, synthetic biology, and functional genomics. 
“UCLA has been at the forefront of taking SwabSeq from an initial technology to validating its use in large-scale testing of real patients,” said Kosuri. “UCLA jump-started a whole community of researchers now using the technique to help bring people back to work and school.” 
Scientists at UCLA Health will soon be using the new coronavirus testing technology which is capable of assessing thousands of individual samples for COVID-19 simultaneously and producing accurate results in 12 to 24 hours.
The SwabSeq testing platform, developed collaboratively by UCLA researchers and Octant, is quicker and less expensive than the widely used polymerase chain reaction method, which requires extracting RNA from samples and can take days to process, the scientists said.
“This is a technological breakthrough that will dramatically increase the amount of COVID-19 testing while reducing the wait time for results and costs,” said Dr. John Mazziotta, vice chancellor for UCLA Health Sciences and CEO of UCLA Health.
SwabSeq takes a person’s saliva and attaches a type of molecular “bar code” to each sample, allowing scientists to combine large batches of samples together in a sequencing machine and rapidly identify those that have the virus. The testing method, which received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 6, can also be applied to nasal and oral COVID-19 testing samples and can be scaled up easily, according to the researchers.
“SwabSeq is highly scalable because it leverages two decades of advances in genomic sequencing technology,” said Eleazar Eskin, chair of UCLA’s Department of Computational Medicine, who was part of the research team that the developed the new platform. “Using SwabSeq, a relatively small lab can process tens of thousands of samples per day.”
"This is an innovative use of genomic sequencing for COVID-19 testing that is uniquely scalable to thousands of samples per day, sensitive and fast—a combination that is challenging to find in diagnostic testing," says Dr. Valerie Arboleda, an assistant professor in the Departments of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine and Human Genetics.
Dr. Jonathan Flint, professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine, says, "The sequencing technology is able to fill the gap in COVID-19 testing, particularly for the asymptomatic population, because it doesn’t have the same supply chain bottlenecks that have limited further expansion of current clinical PCR testing."
"SwabSeq is simple, sensitive and flexible and can provide a turn-around time of less than a day," explains Dr. Leonid Kruglyak, chair of the department of Human Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine. "It has the potential to expand testing capacity to the scale required for pandemic suppression."