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May 18, 2021 | Biomolecular

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Mic and Myra have been put through their paces in COVID-19-testing field trials in regional Western Australia and found to be noticeably robust, rapidly deployable and flexible. These results have been outlined in a recent paper, Development, deployment and in-field demonstration of mobile corona virus SARS-CoV-2 Nucleic acid amplification test, published by Paton, Marr, O’Keefe and Inglis.

In this paper, Paton et al set out to test an optimal open platform for mobile molecular diagnostics in Derby and Broome in north-western Australia, given that both towns are located more than 1,600km from centralised testing services. The choice was made to field test a Mic magnetic induction thermal cycler and Myra liquid handling robot from Bio Molecular Systems, using a duplex RT-PCR assay from Co-Diagnostics.

 

What was being tested?  

In the paper’s introduction, Paton et al outline the challenges that arise with the closed-format cartridge-based PCR platforms that have widely been deployed for urgent COVID-19 testing in regional centres. These cartridge-based systems were associated with ongoing supply chain difficulties and high testing costs, which can limit both the platform’s immediate use as well as its use outside of the pandemic. The chosen alternative was to test an open molecular diagnostics platform and aim for more flexible throughput, as well as the option to use alternative assays if needed.

 

And the results?

The field trials of Mic and Myra proved effective, with the RT-PCR workflow operational within an hour of arrival. Testing was increased from four patient samples to 32 samples per run, with the potential for up to 150 screening assays per day with two operators. The magnetic induction design of Mic also enabled valid results to be produced in as little as two hours after samples were received. Ultimately, the platform proved to be robust, easy and rapid to deploy, accurate and also low in maintenance, as it didn’t require extended re-calibration after transit. With some refinement of equipment and reagents, Paton et al reported a “reliable, safe and portable molecular diagnostics workflow”. The study also highlighted the advantage of being able to validate and use any compatible assay with the open platform.

 

Why are mobile labs so important during COVID-19?

Of course, we’ve learned so much about lab accessibility since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Labs are now able to be decentralised from larger populations and closer to points of care, thanks to significant advancements in design and reliability. With an open platform and adequately skilled operators, testing can now be carried out at airports, workplaces, villages and minesites and away from centralised sample processing facilities. This could have profound benefits for diagnostics, treatment and disease control.

 

The changing nature of testing

It’s important that any equipment purchased for testing can provide use beyond the current pandemic conditions, as testing needs will continue to decline and change as time goes on. In some regions, demand for rapid point-of-care devices and antigen tests is beginning to increase as populations return to ‘normal life’ experiences. Localised environments such as large workplaces, universities, travel and sporting grounds can demand more rapid, mobile and reliable testing capabilities than traditional equipment might be able to provide. In order to keep up with the evolution of testing, lab managers will do well to provide equipment that can support flexible and adaptable workflows using multiple compatible assays.

It’s also worth considering future use beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. In one project between Charles Sturt University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, for example, a molecular testing laboratory has been set up inside a horse float. This set-up enables rapid and early testing for bovine respiratory disease (BRD) just down the road from cattle feedlots.

 

How mobile should mobile be? Key qualities to look for

The race appears to be on to develop the world’s smallest qPCR platform. Several start-ups and established companies in the United States are focused on developing handheld, battery-operated qPCR systems with integrated fluorescence-based detection and results reporting. The potential of isothermal amplification-based devices is also being explored for rapid testing, though these can have lower sensitivity compared to true PCR.

Of course, while making PCR machines smaller can seem like a simple process on the surface, the true challenge lies in ensuring they’re both reliable and robust for use out in the field. There are a number of important factors to consider:

  • Reproducibility & accuracy
    Above all, the equipment must provide reproducible and accurate results to aid in effective disease control, diagnostics and treatment.
  • Power source
    Does the equipment need a hardwired power source – or could generators, car batteries or solar power be used, as with Mic? Keep in mind that some smaller devices may only run low quantities, limiting the potential of any battery power sources used.
  • Speed & throughput
    Speed and high-throughput capabilities could increase testing capability by hundreds of results per day, and will allow you to get the most out of your power source too.
  • Size
    Compact size and weight are both important for a portable testing solution that can easily be transported to a distant site, whether it’s in the jungle, up a mountain or in a desert environment. While there’s a focus on developing handheld solutions, small desktop options such as Mic are already solving many of the same challenges.
  • Calibration & servicing
    Even a small and highly-accurate piece of equipment will be less appropriate for mobile use if it requires extensive servicing or calibration. This is exactly why we developed Myra to self-calibrate with the click of a button, and Mic to require no calibration at all.
  • Software
    Seamless integration between lab equipment can make the difference between a successful workflow and one that requires manual data entry or double handling. It’s why we’ve developed Mic and Myra to work smoothly together, using the same intuitive plug-and-play software.

When choosing lab equipment for a mobile lab or decentralised testing purposes, the ideal choice will ultimately depend on your unique requirements. Sourcing power might be your main site challenge to overcome, or perhaps you’ll need to conduct high-volume runs quickly to manage a sudden outbreak.

At Bio Molecular Systems our Australian-based team has worked to refine each of these key qualities for molecular testing equipment that is reliable, robust and flexible – as indicated by the recent research paper mentioned above. To arrange a free in-lab demo of Mic or Myra, simply get in touch with the team today.

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