Emergent creativity to the pandemic emergency

2nd April 2020
One of the main publicised challenges faced during the COV-19 pandemic is the capacity for testing NHS staff and large numbers of people quickly. The main problems are the availability of tests and the time it takes from testing to result from the analysis. The current healthcare system was not ready for the demand. Researchers at Imperial College London are now tackling the issue, trying to find a low-cost and rapid testing solution.

As we mentioned in our last article, the scientific community, society and the industry are responding to this unknown and novel threat with ingenious solutions across many domains. The global system is under pressure and the scientific communities are called to take a step beyond their research roles and create new solutions to emerging issues. They allow our systems to accelerate the reaction and strategies against the outbreak. An inspiring example is by Dr. Firat Güder and his interdisciplinary team – engineers, computer scientists and bio-technologists – who converted a sensor meant to monitor infections in livestock to an on-site pathogen detector for the Coronavirus.

The Imperial College research lead by Dr. Güder recently uploaded the information on BioRxiv, entitled: “ Ultra-low-cost Integrated Silicon-based Transducer for On-site, genetic detection of pathogens”.

As it is reported in the article, “rapid screening and low-cost diagnosis play a crucial role in choosing the correct course of intervention when dealing with an infectious pathogen (SARS-CoV-2)” that’s why the lab created what they called TriSilix, a system that can be produced in a standard laboratory and that is built in a way to be resilient to disruptions in the global supply chain. It’s a great example of creative response to the crisis. Imperial Tech Foresight had the pleasure to quickly interview Dr Güder on this project to find out more about his work on this novel testing device:


How was your development process of the device? What were the building blocks and the underlying assumptions? How much time did it take from idea to device?

The initial idea was conceived in 2016 and received funding from the Wellcome Trust in 2017 in collaboration with Moredun Institute. Within that project, we began developing a truly low-cost, disposable all-in-one micro-qPCR (we call it TriSilix) for on-site detection of infectious pathogens affecting animals (mainly livestock).

We chose infectious animal diseases over infectious human disease because animal diagnostics have significant cost and performance constraints, hence they are an ambitious target to aim. Tests used in animal farming must produce reliable results while remaining low-cost otherwise animals are simply culled instead (i.e. testing is not performed). Our goal was to miniaturize and integrate the functionality of PCR type nucleic acid detection in a single, inexpensive device (~0.30 GBP per chip for the laboratory prototypes) that is 10x10x0.65 mm in dimensions, therefore portable and low-cost.

Toward the end of this project in January 2020, the COVID-19 crisis started to emerge. Speaking with various collaborators, especially two experts in Wuhan and Beijing in China (introduced by Professor Tony Cass from Imperial College London, Chemistry), we found out that there is a massive technological gap in the diagnostic workflow and that testing is a real bottleneck for managing the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. With that information, we decided to repurpose our technology for the on-site detection of SARS-CoV-2. The initial experiments to try to detect the cDNA of the virus took just over two weeks but we still have a long way to go and currently seeking funding to continue development.


How can these devices revolutionise current and future fights against pandemics? What needs to change in the current system to better and quicker responses to these types of risks?

I think it is now clear to everyone how important testing is. When a novel pathogen emerges, such as SARS-CoV-2, we do not really have the drugs in place to treat or cure it immediately and the development of new drugs or vaccines is a slow process. Widespread testing and early detection are vital in isolating the new cases to contain the pathogen. Low-cost, rapid, handheld nucleic acid detection technologies, such as TriSilix, can accelerate testing in a way that sampling and testing can be done in less than an hour as opposed to days or weeks. Fast testing results in immediate intervention; low-cost enables more testing. Design of reagent for nucleic acid testing is also relatively simple and fast hence the reagents can be adapted to new pathogens within a few weeks, providing us with a versatile weapon against future outbreak.


What other projects do you have in the pipeline? 

In a project funded by the Gates Foundation, Prof. Cass and I are working on another idea that relies on direct detection of viruses (not their genetic material such as RNA or DNA) using a technology similar to pregnancy tests. What we do differently, however, is that we chemically amplify the signal using nano-spheres containing thousands of electro-active molecules; we also detect electrically and not visually with a colour-change. When a virus particle is detected, a cascade of reactions is triggered that eventually burst the nano-spheres to release their contents into the solution which we detect electrically using another novel technology (i.e. binder-free metal inks) invented by my group. This technology is currently developed to help African farmer for detecting viral diseases in plants but, once again, it is versatile and can easily be tailored to detect human pathogens.



In summary, Dr.Güder’s work is an excellent testimony of the capacity that humans have to “ recombine pieces of knowledge that they already know, but in novel and unusual ways” as mentioned by AI researcher Yoshua Bengio –  in other words – to be creative. A novel problem arises, prior knowledge is effectively re-purposed. It’s something that existing AI can’t do very well whilst humans excel at, however new AI models might mimic human skills to be able to improve learning and creativity in the future. We hope to see many more examples of ingenious, adaptable and low-costs solutions such as this in the coming weeks.

Over the next couple of days, Imperial College London will be looking for support from our partners on these new devices and products in the hope in getting them to where they are most needed as quickly as possible. Another project that a team of researchers from Imperial’s departments of Bioengineering and Surgery and Cancer has produced is a design for a simple and low-cost emergency ventilator using off-the-shelf components that could help health systems respond to COVID19. The team is looking for health organisations, manufacturers and other organisations interested in helping take the device from design to manufacture. If you are interested in helping out, please get in touch with Imperial Consultants on this page.