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UCSD and Escondido company partner to develop rapid coronavirus test

Dr. David Pride (left), director of molecular microbiology at UCSD Health, and Suresh Menon, CEO of Menon Biosensors Inc.
Dr. David Pride (left), director of molecular microbiology at UC San Diego Health, and Suresh Menon, founder and CEO of Menon Biosensors Inc., teamed up to develop a rapid test for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

University teams with Menon Biosensors; they say thousands of samples can be processed with MRI.

Scientists at UC San Diego Health have teamed up with an Escondido company to develop a new rapid test for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 that can be scaled up to analyze as many as 100,000 samples in a day with equipment readily available in hospitals throughout the United States and the world.

Menon Biosensors Inc. developed technology called the “molecular mirror” that can analyze samples rapidly, in mass batches and at a lower cost than existing tests, said Suresh Menon, founder and chief executive of the company.

Menon said his company is working with UCSD Health to verify the accuracy and reliability of the test, and the two entities applied in February to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to roll out the test at labs across the country.

The team of Menon and UCSD also is among 20 finalists in the $6 million X Prize competition that drew more than 200 teams from throughout the world to develop a faster, cheaper and easier-to-use coronavirus test.

“This approach allows for accurate and rapid mass diagnostic capability without false negatives,” Menon said. “The key is to leverage existing infrastructure so we can move quickly to implement this.”

Dr. David Pride, director of molecular microbiology at UCSD Health, who is overseeing trials of the new testing method at his lab, said the test’s accuracy is equivalent to that of existing coronavirus tests, at a cheaper cost and much more rapid pace.

“Why not do them thousands at a time? That’s the benefit of using this new technology,” Pride said.

Menon said the molecular mirror technology starts with a sample of mucus or saliva taken with a swab from a patient’s nose or mouth. The sample is then mixed with a proprietary “reagent” and heated, which causes molecular “tags” to attach to the virus’s RNA.

The samples, in batches of thousands, can be placed into a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine like those at hospitals and clinics around the world. The scan produces a visual signal of the presence of the virus that can be read and diagnosed, Menon said. Another type of machine, called nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, also can be used.

The U.S. alone has about 10,000 MRI machines and 10,000 NMR systems, Menon said. Since thousands of samples can be scanned in an MRI at one time, the new procedure offers the potential to test huge swaths of the population in a single day, he said.

The current standard test for coronavirus, called PCR, requires a specialized machine with a much lower capacity for testing samples, increasing the cost and reducing the speed at which results can be obtained, Menon said.

The molecular mirror technology behind the rapid coronavirus test grew out of technology that Menon originally developed to detect biological weapons as a contractor for the U.S. departments of defense and homeland security.

Last summer, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, Menon and his company began to adapt the technology as a diagnostic test for the coronavirus, Menon said.

His company first worked with scientists at San Diego State University to apply the technology to non-clinical samples, and then with UCSD to test samples from patients, Menon said.

“We spent some time to be absolutely sure this works,” he said.

If the application for emergency use authorization is successful, the method would be available within four to eight weeks for any lab to use, Pride said.

Rapid and inexpensive testing is necessary before schools and businesses can begin to reopen safely, Pride said.

Currently, scientists believe the molecular mirror test developed by Menon can detect the variants of the coronavirus that have emerged, Pride said, and if the virus mutates into new variants in the future, the test can be easily adapted to detect them. The test also can be quickly adapted to new viruses, Menon said. ◆