Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new method to detect the proteins that make up the coronavirus, as well as antibodies against it.

They have developed protein-based biosensors that glow when mixed with components of the virus or specific Covid-19 antibodies.

The researchers of the study believe that this breakthrough could enable faster and more widespread testing in the near future. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Currently, most medical laboratories across the world are using RT-PCR test that amplifies genetic material from the virus so that it can be seen. This technique requires specialised staff and equipment and is time consuming. However, it gives more reliable results than the quick antigen test.

Now, a team of researchers led by David Baker, professor of biochemistry and director of the Institute for Protein Design at UW Medicine, used computers to design new biosensors. These protein-based devices recognize specific molecules on the surface of the virus, bind to them, then emit light through a biochemical reaction.

These biosensors, according to the authors of the study, are highly reliable as they do not react to other antibodies that might also be in the blood, including those that target other viruses. This sensitivity is important for avoiding false-positive test results. “We have shown in the lab that these new sensors can readily detect virus proteins or antibodies in simulated nasal fluid or donated serum,” said Baker.

“Our next goal is to ensure they can be used reliably in a diagnostic setting. This work illustrates the power of de novo protein design to create molecular devices from scratch with new and useful functions,” he added.

The team added that this technology can also be used to detect medically relevant human proteins such as Her2 (a biomarker and therapy target for some forms of breast cancer) and Bcl-2 (which has clinical significance in lymphoma and some other cancers), as well as a bacterial toxin and antibodies that target Hepatitis B virus.