Breakthrough led by Cork scientists develops key chemical and helps avert potential Covid-19 testing crisis

A team of Irish scientists has averted another potential Covid-19 testing crisis by developing a key test chemical whose supplies were running low.
Breakthrough led by Cork scientists develops key chemical and helps avert potential Covid-19 testing crisis

A team of Irish scientists has averted another potential Covid-19 testing crisis by developing a key test chemical whose supplies were running low.

Working remotely, the team devised, manufactured and validated their own formula for the so-called ‘lysis buffer’, and now have a process in place to scale-up production for enough chemical to facilitate thousands of tests daily on swabs in labs around the country.

“There are a number of really good lessons in this for us as an island,” said Dr Bridget Lucey, one of the lead scientists on the project.

A senior lecturer at CIT’s Department of Biological Sciences and President of the Academy of Clinical Science and Laboratory Medicine, she said:

We should never again assume it’s going to be ok to get products from overseas, especially in times of crisis like this pandemic.

”We need to have a ‘plan b’ to ensure that we can continue to run a quality system.

“We have great scientists and great capabilities here.

“Perhaps the most exciting part of this breakthrough is that it came about as a result of collaboration, under conditions of extreme urgency, between 11 scientists, who had to work in physical isolation from one another.”

The rate of Covid-19 testing slowed significantly last week because of the unprecedented demand for and a global shortage of commercial supplies of a specific reagent used in the labs.

The HSE has since sourced a new supply and hopes to double test rates this week to around 4,500 a day.

But another potential problem was looming over a global shortage of commercial supplies of another vital chemical used in testing - lysis buffer.

The chemical is used to ‘break open’ the virus on the swab samples taken from patients to allow the test to take place.

Dr Lucey said this potential crisis was being discussed by colleagues around the country with some alarm.

She began working on the issue with Dr Martina Scallan, of UCC’s microbiology department and soon they built a team around them including medical scientists Catherine Dempsey and Isabelle O’Callaghan of CUH, Dr John MacSharry of UCC, Prof Paul Cotter and Paula O’Connor of Teagasc, and Dr Sarah Hudson and Dr Edel Durack of UL.

Within days, they had sourced the ingredients for lysis buffer and approached Dr Conor Horgan and Dr Humphrey Moynihan of pharma giant Lilly to produce the chemical.

They made four versions for testing in the labs at CUH before the ideal formula was selected and validated.

They now have 4.5-litres of their own lysis buffer - enough to conduct almost 8,000 tests - ready for distribution to labs around the country. And they can scale-up production when required.

Dr Lucey thanked all involved for their contributions to the project “at this time of national crisis”.

“The unstinting cooperation, positivity and generosity of all involved, with participants drawn from the public and private biopharma sectors as well as hospital laboratories and third level research facilities, has enabled a successful outcome, and we hope that these efforts can help all those working so tirelessly in the forefront of the battle to contain and overcome Covid-19,” she said.

The team has prepared a scientific paper on the formula, the methodology, the risk assessment and the verification for this lysis buffer and they have made their findings freely available to scientists nationally and internationally.

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