In early 2019, Drs Tim Hore (Otago) and Tomasz Jurkowski, from the University of Cardiff, showed scientists how to purify genetic material from a wide range of sources using self-made magnetic nanoparticles for use in research and testing.

They called the platform ‘Bio-on-Magnetic-Beads’ or ‘BOMB’ for short, and originally advocated the ‘do-it-yourself’ system on the basis that it was much more cost-effective and flexible than existing solutions for purifying genetic material. It could also be scaled for processing hundreds of samples simultaneously using robotic instruments.

Fast-forward to March 2020 and a few days prior to New Zealand’s move to lockdown, Dr Hore was contacted by Canterbury Health Laboratories (CHL) Scientific Officer, Dr Kylie Drake, a University of Otago alumna, who was actively looking for ways to purify the genetic material from the Covid-19 virus, so that it could be tested for diagnosis.

Dr Hore explains that usually this is done using reagents supplied in a proprietary kit sold to testing laboratories. “This works fine under usual circumstances, but we now know that when a pandemic like this hits, companies are unable to keep up with demand, panic-buying occurs as countries try to secure testing for their people – and inevitably stocks run out.

“Because of the limited reagent supply from companies and precipitous drop in air-travel it was harder and harder to get the required reagents in and New Zealand’s ability to test for Covid-19 testing was severely threatened.”

Dr Hore adapted one of the protocols to isolate genetic material from the SARSCov-2 (Covid-19) virus. Dr Drake undertook all of the testing and validation required to make this a diagnostic test, so it was proven to work well in a clinical setting and as such could be implemented widely if needed.

Dr Hore explains it resulted in a locally-developed, efficient and validated diagnostic method to purify the genetic material of the virus that did not rely upon foreign life-science companies for supply.

“It gave District Health Boards a backstop, so that if the supply chain for reagents failed, we were still going to have a method to purify the genetic material from the virus so that it could be tested in patients.”

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