CAMBRIDGE — A Holland native was involved in the development of a new diagnostic technology capable of running thousands of tests simultaneously, including the capability to test for the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19.
Cheri Ackerman, a Holland Christian and Calvin University graduate, was part of a group that developed a technology called Combinatorial Arrayed Reactions for Multiplexed Evaluation of Nucleic acids or CARMEN.
Ackerman and Cameron Myhrvold, both postdoctoral fellows at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, were co-first authors of a study published by Nature on Wednesday, April 29, detailing CARMEN. Paul Blainey and Pardis Sabeti supervised the work.
The CARMEN technology allows for a large diagnostic testing capacity and the ability to test for a variety of viruses at once. A single CARMEN chip can test more than 1,000 samples for a single virus type or test a small number of samples for more than 160 different viruses. It can be used to test for the COVID-19 virus.
CARMEN is a rubber chip, slightly larger than a smartphone, with tens of thousands of tiny microwells designed to hold a pair of tiny droplets the size of a nanoliter. One droplet contains viral genetic material from a sample and the other contains virus-detection reagents.
Researchers add unique fluorescent dyes to each prepared sample and detection mixture, then pool the samples and detection mixtures in the microwells. When a detection droplet finds its target — a specific viral genetic sequence — in a sample droplet in the same microwell, a signal is produced and detected by a fluorescence microscope.
The entire process takes under eight hours.
The process of developing CARMEN got underway well before the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the researchers were able to quickly adapt the technology to test for the virus.
“It was done in a matter of weeks, which is pretty awesome,” Ackerman said.
The team is working to get FDA and EUA approval for CARMEN so it can be deployed for use.
“We are moving quickly on a path towards FDA, EUA and use in the COVID pandemic,” Sabeti said. “We are already using this CARMEN approach to do surveillance, to support work that’s ongoing here in Massachusetts. To not only test for COVID, but being able to test for many other things that might be circulating for those individuals who test negative.”
Ackerman said the next goal for the research team is reducing some of the technical barriers that exist with the new technology to make it more accessible.
“Our research goals right now are to remove all of those barriers,” she said. “To make sure the excitement people feel about having multiplex diagnostics at their fingertips is a reality.”
A dream for Ackerman is to have the technology able to transform epidemiology and public health.
“Imagine a world in which you go to the doctor and you actually find out which virus is making you sick,” she said. “Instead of wondering what’s circulating in a community, we actually get stats. Real, good measurements of what’s there, how fast it’s spreading and what populations it’s circulating in.
“Having that level of information to inform public health, to inform patient care is really critical. That was the inspiration for starting to work on this technology and it continues to motivate us.”
To learn more about CARMEN, visit nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2279-8.
— Contact reporter Mitchell Boatman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SentinelMitch.