PH scientists developing smaller, cheaper PCR machine to help boost COVID-19 testing

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 08 2020 12:38 PM

PH scientists developing smaller, cheaper PCR machine to help boost COVID-19 testing 1
Photo courtesy of DOST

MANILA — A group of scientists and engineers in the Philippines are working to produce a more portable and less expensive device to run COVID-19 tests, the Department of Science and Technology said Monday.

“While national and local efforts to source diagnostic kits have been successful, there is an imminent testing bottleneck in the country due to the lack of capable qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) instruments on which to run these specialized kits,” the DOST said in a media release.

The Philippine government and the World Health Organization consider PCR testing the gold standard in COVID-19 testing.

Unlike antibody rapid test kits, PCR tests are able to accurately detect if a patient’s sample has the COVID-19 virus. However, it can only be done in laboratories and requires a longer time to process.

The DOST said that its Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) will be supporting a multi-disciplinary team of biologists, clinicians and engineers in developing the “Accelerated development of a cost-efficient microPCR (miPCR) and lateral flow diagnostic (LFD) system to enable expanded near-point-of-care testing for COVID-19”, or the AMPLiFieD System.

The group developing the system is led by Dr. Jeremie de Guzman, Dr. Keith Moore, and Mr. Ricardo Jose S. Guerrero, PhD candidate from the Ateneo Research Institute for Science and Engineering (ARISE).

The DOST explained that the system will be integrating two DOST-PCHRD supported projects. The first is the miPCR Project, a microfluidic PCR device for portable DNA/RNA amplification, and the other is the ADDS Project, an amplified DNA detection system based on low-cost lateral flow diagnostic (LFD) strips to selectively detect the viral nucleic acids that are the output of the miPCR device.

PCR testing works by amplifying the genetic material in body fluids or samples, and subsequently detecting and comparing it with the genetic code of the virus. 

The DOST said that once the proof of concept of the two devices are made, “further validation and verification of these devices will be conducted to ensure reliability and robustness.”

“If successful, AMPLiFieD could provide a functional alternative to commercial qPCR instruments at a significantly lower cost and a much smaller size,” the DOST said.

“The availability of this alternative system can also potentially lead to creating more cost-effective, more distributed testing laboratories and provide the much-needed testing infrastructure for more responsive testing and tracing of suspected COVID-19 cases.”

While the government has said that the country’s accredited PCR laboratories have a maximum capacity of more than 40,000 tests a day, daily testing has only reached less than 12,000 a day.

The Department of Health attributed the failure to match the actual tests with the maximum capacity to such operational issues as damaged equipment and lack of supplies.

The Philippines has sought to address the shortage of test kits by supporting the development of locally-made kits by the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health.

Local scientists have argued that having locally-made kits would reduce the cost, and address shortages caused by delays in importation and procurement.