Dr Mark Platt

Technology for screening fruit juice could provide rapid Covid screening

  • Technique was originally developed for use within the soft drinks industry to test for contaminants
  • Early results show it can also be used for rapid pre-screening and diagnosis of Covid-19
  • Although vaccines are in the pipeline, rapid testing remains an essential tool to stop the spread of the virus

Loughborough University researchers are hoping a technology they developed to quickly screen liquids for microorganisms can be adapted to provide rapid testing for Covid-19.

The team’s unique device, which uses a technique known as resistive pulse sensing, is being launched as a University spin out for use within the soft drinks industry to test for contaminants.

Now the researchers are investigating its capability to provide both coronavirus pre-screening – with results shown in less than five minutes – and a Covid-19 diagnosis – with results shown in less than 20 minutes – by counting and identifying viral particles in a small saliva sample.

Although vaccines are now in the pipeline, rapid testing for Covid-19 will remain crucial for many months to come.

The team have already been able validate their technology against lab developed mimics of the virus particles. This proved the technology was able to count small particles at the limits needed to monitor saliva for Covid-19, and preliminary data for the test to confirm the presence of sars-cov-2 mimic viral particles.

To the use the testing device – which is about the size of a laptop and has the potential to be a handheld device – the person being screened would go through a two-stage process:

Stage One - Monitoring

Studies show that people infected with coronavirus have an elevated number of viral particles in their saliva, even if other symptoms do not develop. Loughborough’s testing unit uses resistive pulse sensing to count viral particles directly from a saliva sample. The number of particles detected could be displayed on the machine in less than 5 minutes. If the number of particles is shown to be in the normal range, the individual is cleared to proceed (e.g. enter a care home, travel). If the number is high, they may be carrying coronavirus and they would then use the same testing unit for the second test, which could offer a rapid diagnosis of Covid-19.

Stage Two - Covid-19 assay

From the same saliva sample, the unit uses the resistive pulse sensing technology again, this time to identify the nature of the virus. A positive or negative result for coronavirus could be shown on the device in less than 20 minutes. 

Rhush Maugi, a Chemistry graduate and early-career researcher at Loughborough, is one of the lead developers of the technology. Whilst the Loughborough team try to secure further funding, he is working with a company in Italy – Elements SRL – on a project funded by the Italian government to create specific sensors for Covid-19.

In partnership with Loughborough’s Dr Mark Platt, Rhush is also aiming to translate their innovative diagnostic research for commercial use in the soft drinks industry through a  University spin-out, Figura Analytics.

Speaking about the future of the testing device, Rhush said: “The technology developed at Loughborough has many applications, and the detection of Sars-Cov-2 is one immediate way we can help and demonstrate the power of the platform technology. And we already have NHS partners lined up ready to collaborate on this area of work, we just need to secure further funding.

“The team is also exploring the many other applications for this tech, from healthcare, food and drink and environmental monitoring, with a growing list of partners from around the world.”

Dr Platt added: “If this existing technology can be adapted for Covid screening, it could play a crucial part in opening up transport hubs, enabling safe access to family in care homes and help kick start the events industry.”

For further information about the technology and its applications click here.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 20/190

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.