Atom Bioworks Gets NSF Grant to Work on COVID-19 Diagnostic

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Cary-based startup Atom Bioworks plans to use artificial intelligence and nanotechnology to design a rapid diagnostic for COVID-19.

That initiative just got a big boost. 

The National Science Foundation has awarded the company a $248,000 grant under its Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program. RAPID accepts proposals to conduct studies that can immediately help diagnose or treat the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Atombio deploys structural DNA nanotechnology – a method of folding strands of synthetic DNA into customized shapes and objects – to snag viruses like COVID-19 as they float in the patient’s blood or body fluids. The DNA antibody binds to the virus and the florescence that occurs, easily visible in a blood or nasal swab test, is one way of detecting the disease.

Atombio uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify the virus’s specific surface patterns, and then to design the DNA structure that will fold over that surface and bind with it. The company takes advantage of its own PBINDS (Polyvalent Binding Nanostructure Defied by Software) platform to automate the process. 

Atombio CEO Sherwood Yao said the company’s DNA-based antigen detection method is designed to recognize the biomarker of the COVID-19 virus spike protein. This provides a highly responsive way to determine whether a patient has the coronavirus. 

Faster, simpler, cheaper than PCR test system

The process is faster – and the test is simpler to run – than other coronavirus diagnostics, he added. That includes the RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) molecular test commonly used to detect COVID-19. Results can be available in a matter of minutes at a target cost of $1 to $2 per test. 

CEO Sherwood Rao
CEO Sherwood Yao

By comparison, RT-PCR diagnostics are designed for central laboratory settings and take a few hours to register results at a per-patient cost approaching $50, according to Yao. He said the Atombio diagnostic, once perfected, also should be easier to scale up to meet demand. 

“It’s a novel approach and it’s pretty exciting,” said Ken Janoski, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s senior director, investments. “There is an urgent need for new diagnostics that can recognize the presence of COVID-19 in those who are infected with the virus. Atombio’s technology has potential as an accurate and cost effective way of doing that, and as a rapid response tool for future viral threats.”

Yao said the Atombio team hopes to complete its initial research and publish results in the next several months. From there, it should take six to nine more months to develop a prototype diagnostic that can be clinically validated.

“Our early results are promising,” he pointed out. “But we still have a long way to go to arrive at a marketable product.”

Yao said the COVID-19 diagnostic is just the first part of the journey. The next step is to use the same technology platform to kill the virus once it’s trapped.

Atom Bioworks and partner researchers already have used nanotechnology and AI to develop a five-pointed DNA star structure to test for Dengue fever and other mosquito-borne viruses. Nature Chemistry recently reported the results of that study.

Bryant Haskins, NCBiotech Writer
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 09:44