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AIM Photonics' rapid Covid test backed with pandemic rescue funding

01 Mar 2022

US development hub wins support for production of photonics-based sensors to detect coronavirus and other pathogens.

The US Department of Commerce has allocated more than $5 million in funding to facilitate the production of a new photonics-based test for coronavirus and other virus types.

Awarded to an AIM Photonics collaboration via the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), with money from the American Rescue Act, the idea is to produce the “first-ever inexpensive, disposable point-of-care sensors using integrated photonics to test for coronavirus and emerging viruses”.

The approach is intended to increase access to tests without the need for expensive equipment such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment and specialized expertise.

According to NIST, AIM Photonics and eight partners will receive $5 million under one award, while a smaller $300,000 project will support development of a proof-of-concept alternative using silicon photonics.

Rochester developments
While the NIST announcement does not specify the exact technology used, AIM Photonics has been collaborating on a coronavirus test with Benjamin Miller’s research group at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

In early 2021, the team said it was developing an optical chip on a disposable card that was able to detect multiple viruses - including the virus that causes Covid-19 - within a minute, from a single drop of blood.

That collaboration also involved Rochester-based lab testing firm Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, as well as polymer optics maker Syntec Optics, and the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

“This is a completely new diagnostic platform,” said Miller at the time. “We think this is going to be valuable in very broad applications for clinical diagnostics, not just Covid-19.”

That test is based around a device that contains an optical chip and, in a separate area, proteins associated with eight different viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

If someone has been exposed to any of the viruses, antibodies to those viruses in the blood sample will be drawn to the proteins and detected. The device was set to be tested on 100 patients known to have been infected with the novel coronavirus.

It is hoped that the tests will enable clinicians not only to detect and study Covid-19, but also to better understand the relationship between Covid-19 infection and previous infections and immunity to other respiratory viruses, including other coronaviruses.

Miller suggested at the time that the team’s goal was to have a validated benchtop prototype of the device by spring 2022, and that after that the researchers would apply for up to $5.3 million in additional funding to transition the technology towards commercial availability.

optics.org previously reported on developments in Miller’s laboratory back in May 2020, with the Rochester professor explaining that the sensors would be designed to rapidly spot the “immunoglobulin G” and “immunoglobulin M” antibodies that humans develop within two days of exposure to the virus.

“The main thing is: faster, better, cheaper,” Miller added. “We can put multiple tests on the same component, not just one marker for Covid-19. We can look at a lot more variables to describe someone’s immune status.”

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