Researchers develop diagnostic technology to detect Omicron variant in 20 minutes

By Lim Chang-won Posted : December 10, 2021, 15:32 Updated : December 10, 2021, 16:45

[Gettyimages Bank]

SEOUL -- South Korean researchers have developed a diagnostic technology that can detect the Omicron variant in 20 minutes. Researchers were able to acquire results in several days, opening the way for health officials to respond quickly even if a new variant occurs. Diagnostic kits can be easily made because professional equipment is not required.

A research team led by Lee Jeong-wook, a professor of chemical engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), said the new diagnostic method can find out the so-called "Stealth Omicron," which cannot be detected by a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method. 

Lee's team used molecular diagnostic technology, not sequencing which is used to read DNA or RNA sequences. Unlike conventional technology that can process up to 96 samples per device, the new technology can process more than 125 in 30 minutes. Moreover, the method can respond quickly even if a new mutation or virus occurs in the future.

"I hope the disclosure of this technology will help speed up our return to normal daily life," Lee said in a statement released by POSTECH. "We will try to quickly diagnose and respond to new mutations or other viruses that may come out after COVID-19." 

Lee will open research results through his homepage on December 10 to cooperate with other researchers in developing better technologies and achieving quick commercialization, as the new method was not perfect because it was the result of research just in several days. 

As a reliable and accurate method, South Korea has adopted the real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test that amplifies a specific DNA sample. Samples are tested by trained personnel at special facilities.

The PCR molecular diagnostic method finds out a specific gene of the virus. If a mutation occurs, the mutant virus cannot be found. For accurate diagnosis. the base sequence of the entire gene should be analyzed using expensive equipment and complex preparations. Lee's team reduced the time by checking the sequence of some mutated points in the gene. 

In September 2020, Lee's team developed a detection technology that can quickly diagnose COVID-19 based on RNA sequence. Fluorescent materials were attached to genetic materials so that researchers could identify the coronavirus gene with eyes. The same method was used to detect Omicron mutations.

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