Gene editing technology known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) allows for quick detection of pathogens by marking genetic sequences in DNA/RNA. Scientists at the University of California San Diego have used that expertise to create SENSR (sensitive enzymatic nucleic acid sequence reporter) to streamline the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 and a pandemic that brought the world to a halt.

The goal is to offer a highly accurate test that can be used in health facilities, but also in homes as well. "CRISPR has significantly advanced our capabilities for rapid identification of infected individuals and offers point-of-care testing in low-resource settings that previously wasn't possible," said biological sciences professor Omar Akbari. "SENSR further opens the toolbox for CRISPR diagnostic systems and will help detect emerging pathogens before they become pandemics." SARS-CoV-2 visible under electron microscope.SARS-CoV-2 visible under electron microscope.

During the development of SENSR, the genetics lab worked with Professor Elizabeth Komives' lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to purify SENSR proteins and Rob Knight's lab in the Department of Pediatrics (School of Medicine and Center for Microbiome Innovation) to test viral samples.

A science-based return to learn

SENSR is one of the latest innovative approaches the lab is tackling to fight the pandemic. The university has been applauded for having an exemplary Return to Learn strategy based on science, resulting in 10,000 students on campus, high vaccination rates and an infection rate of less than 1%.

In the first stages of SENSR, the technology proved accurate detection of SARS-CoV-2 in under 60 minutes. While the lab states that the process needs some refining, the technology is showing great potential of achieving a "powerful molecular diagnostic with numerous applications."

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