Iowa State professor is in the process of developing two COVID-19 tests

David Mullen
Staff Writer

Chemists at Iowa State University believe they are on the path to developing the first at-home COVID-19 test kit that would not require lab testing.

Robbyn Anand, an assistant chemistry professor, and her group of 16 student researchers have developed a blueprint for a paper-strip urine test that will detect proteins associated with COVID-19.

It is similar to a pregnancy test but more complicated, with 10 to 1,000 times more sensitivity in its analysis. Anand describes the process as being like a strainer, using electric fields to assess proteins used in detecting the virus.

Although the process of developing a test for diseases can often be lengthy, Anand is hopeful the product will soon be in homes. Her team is already in discussions with commercial companies that could help market the tests.

“My goal is to have them done by the end of the summer, because everyone is trying to go back to work and back to school, and that’s pretty scary if there’s not a great way to test people frequently,” Anand said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized the emergency use of six coronavirus at-home collection kits, with the first at-home test approved in April. But those tests — regardless of whether they are done at home — must be sent to a lab for results.

Anand’s project would use urine, making it more convenient for home use than nasal swabs or blood tests. The method also relies on antigen test rather than an antibody test, which generally means results are far faster, said Andrew Feig, a doctor and program director at the Research Corporation and Science Advancement, an organization based out of Tuscon, Arizona, that has for more than a century supported scientific advancements.

The Arizona organization has awarded Anand and six other teams from across the country $55,000 each to try to develop at-home tests.

“So it’s a different modality from the other types of tests that are currently being used,” Feig said in explaining why Anand’s proposal received financial backing from his group.

Anand has been studying and working with electrokinetics since 2004. Her team is also working on another COVID-19 test similar to a nasal-swab test that would require a user to give saliva samples, rather than samples from inside a patient’s nostril. However, the saliva test would need to be performed within a medical lab, Anand said.

Dr. Jamie Weydert, a pathologist at McFarland Clinic, said the test developments could be groundbreaking.

“We have a hard time getting access to (coronavirus) testing because of such a high demand, so it would definitely be a game changer,” Weydert said. “There’s been a lot of interest in developing a quick and rapid test, and some look like they’re going to work out, while others don’t.”

If a test can be developed that’s accurate and could come online before the start of fall classes at schools and universities, that would be a major accomplishment, Weydert said.

“It’d be a boom for society and would be very helpful. We’re all being cautiously optimistic,” Weydert said.