Yufeng TongUWindsor professor Yufeng Tong is researching a new COVID-19 testing kit and engineering simulated genetic material to test the accuracy of diagnostic kits already on the market.

Biochemist researching improvements to COVID-19 testing

A UWindsor biochemist has teamed up with a Canadian biotech company on a pair of research projects that could result in better COVID-19 testing in the Windsor-Essex area.

Yufeng Tong is working with SM Research Inc. (SMR) and Windsor Regional Hospital to test the reliability of diagnostic kits coming to market by comparing them to results from Public Health Ontario laboratories. SMR, based out of Richmond Hill, Ont., has also created its own COVID-19 testing kit that Dr. Tong will help validate and make available locally.

Tong said he is looking to decrease wait times and improve the effectiveness of COVID-19 testing in the community.

“Early and fast detection of the virus responsible for COVID-19 is critical for isolating infected patients to prevent community transmission, but currently, the Windsor-Essex region and most communities in Ontario suffer from insufficient testing capabilities,” Tong said.

“Once the SMR diagnostic kit is validated, SMR will help acquire more testing kits at a cost-recovery price.”

Tong’s other project, in conjunction with SMR’s Enders Ng, involves engineering virus-like particles to test the diagnostic kits currently available from other manufacturers.

The tests that detect the live virus that causes COVID-19 use what’s called nucleic acid-based quantitative reserve transcription polymerase chain reaction, or RT-qPCR, Tong said. Put simply, they test for the presence of the ribonucleic acid or RNA associated with the virus.

Tong will engineer RNA that will mimic the genetic code of the virus without being infectious. This “armored RNA” will be used to check the reliability of the tests used to diagnose COVID-19.

“Major challenges to increasing testing capacity include overcoming the many false positive and false negative results and accounting for the rapid mutational rate of RNA viruses,” he said. “We need to establish a reliable diagnostic standard to validate RT-qPCR COVID-19 diagnostic kits from different manufacturers. The goal of this project is to engineer a homogenous, stable, non-infectious and economic RT-qPCR standard.”

Tong said the research will provide an adaptable platform to detect other RNA viruses that pose public health threats, including seasonal influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.

Tong’s research is funded by the University of Windsor’s Office of Research and Innovation and the WE-Spark Health Institute, a research partnership involving the University of Windsor, Windsor Regional Hospital, Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, and St. Clair College. It is one of 21 local COVID-related research projects WE-Spark has financially supported through its COVID-19 Rapid Response grant program.

—Sarah Sacheli