Violette Defourt, Lucy Chong en Eugene Golov, Universiteit Leiden

In the past year, our healthcare systems, economies, and our ways of life were impacted by the destructive force of a viral pandemic. Outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics are occurring more frequently. During the last decades, we have seen many outbreaks, especially of respiratory pathogens, such as SARS, MERS, and various influenza strains. These pathogens pose a threat as they mutate frequently and spread rapidly. Controlling outbreaks can only be achieved through large scale, repeated testing to establish the infected population and take measures accordingly. But diagnostics are not only key to containing outbreaks: they are also crucial in guiding over 60% of all healthcare decisions. Faster, more accurate, and inexpensive diagnostic tools enable doctors to make better treatment decisions and to drastically cut healthcare costs.

Existing methods have important shortcomings. The current most accurate tests on the market, based on PCR, require logistically demanding laboratory facilities and expertise. On the other hand, antigen or antibody tests are much simpler and do not require equipment. However, they take a long time to redevelop for novel diseases and are less sensitive.

This is why we are developing Rapidemic: a novel platform technology that is able to quickly and accurately diagnose patients infected with pathogens in minimal time. Our patent – pending technology detects the most essential part of the pathogen, its genome. Rapidemic only requires the addition of little pieces of synthetic DNA, called primers, to make a device pathogen-specific. Additionally, an easy readout is provided by a clear blue color change. We want to bring the accuracy of PCR tests into the doctor’s office by providing on-the-spot testing, without the need for external equipment. The modularity of our device also provides an opportunity for rapid scalability, as our test can be redeveloped for other diseases with significantly less resources.

Our first product is a test to differentiate respiratory viral infections, such as influenza viruses, coronaviruses and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). For people in risk groups, these diseases can be life threatening if not treated immediately with the right medication. Health care practitioners and clinicians value speed in diagnosis, as it can reduce risks for the patient’s environment but also the practitioners’ health, and give clinicians actionable information right away. We have validated this use case with doctors and together with the Leiden UMC we will validate the use of our technology in the field.

Diagnostic tests can be singleplex (detect one pathogen) or multiplex (distinguish between multiple pathogens). Respiratory infections cause similar symptoms (coughing, fever) and are difficult to distinguish. Meanwhile, treatment must be pathogen-specific. For example, Tamiflu is effective for treating the flu but should not be given to COVID-19 patients. Rapidemic’s multiplex testing provides the advantage of distinguishing different infections in a single test.

We firmly believe that the cost of diagnosis should not be a strain on their accessibility. Rapidemic’s molecular methods make use of common biological methods. These enable the technology to be very affordable. In the long term, this allows the technology to be used to detect diseases such as malaria in low-resource areas, where current diagnostic methods are too expensive.