Monica Hoang had no idea earlier this year that she’d be spending the last few months of her PhD working on the design of a COVID-19 testing kit.

The School of Pharmacy student moved back to her hometown when the University of Waterloo decided to go online for the spring term and planned to do her PhD defence digitally.

Then an old friend in the pharmacy program messaged her to say his colleagues were looking for somebody with a genetics background to join their team. The next day, Hoang was at a meeting in Waterloo’s Velocity startup incubator in downtown Kitchener.

“It happened fast and I sure wasn’t planning to be back in Kitchener every day,” she says. “But the work is important and moving quickly. I’m happy to do what I can to contribute.”

Hoang joined forces with Kamyar Ghofrani (BASc ’17) and James MacLean (BASc ’15), both graduates of the Waterloo nanotechnology engineering program, to respond to a point of care and home diagnostic kit challenge issued by the federal government.

The challenge calls for development of a testing kit to detect COVID-19 in people within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms with a high degree of accuracy. The test should be usable with no technical training, cost $40 or less and produce results in 20 minutes.

Ghofrani, who specializes in microfluidics, heard about the challenge and connected with MacLean, a friend with experience in consumer diagnostic technology. They realized that much of the technology to create such a test is already available – it just needed to be rebuilt to target COVID-19 and meet the criteria.

“We brainstormed, came up with a few different ideas - some better than others - and within a week we had a design,” Ghofrani says.

“A lot of it was due to the community effort,” MacLean says of their early progress.

“We were able to hop on the phone with professors and friends, in both the startup community and the research community, to find out what was and wasn’t possible.”

team of researchers on a video callFrom left to right: Monica Hoang, James MacLean, Kamyar Ghofrani, Rosemary MacLean, Renessa Gomes

Hoang was recruited to help evaluate COVID-19 research on product design and overcome scientific hurdles.

“COVID-related research is being generated at an incredible rate,” Hoang says. “I reviewed many, many scientific papers in a very short period of time just to get up to speed. When we run into a challenge, I play a key role in sorting through all the research available and coming up with a solution.

“It’s an interesting time to be doing research because articles are published without peer review. Information is constantly being released and you have to decipher between what is realistic, replicable, and what is too good to be true.”

Hoang’s years of lab experience prepared her well for the task, helping ensure the team has all the information needed to move ahead with product design. The result so far is a prototype the trio calls the SeraLamp kit.

The kit contains the latest in RNA detection technology condensed into an at-home, single-use unit. Users collect a saliva sample in a tube, place it in a small machine and receive a result in 30 minutes.

Seralamp kit devicePrototype testing device called the SeraLamp kit.

SeraLamp’s simplicity is part of its appeal.

Unlike testing tools that require health professionals or multiple steps and additional components like buffer solutions, pipetting or counting out drops, it can be used by anyone and the results are simply presented as either a red light for positive, or a green light for negative.

The kit also connects to an app and the results can be made available to Health Canada via the cloud.

“Current COVID testing requires trained personnel, so we’re trying to make sure that everything we’re putting into the kit is completely foolproof,” says Hoang. “It means thinking of everything that could go wrong during operation and finding a way to prevent it.”

The SeraLamp kit is still at an early stage, with the team now focused on optimizing design and getting prototypes ready for clinical validation. With Health Canada fast-tracking new RNA tests, the startup company hopes to launch a product in the fall.

Meanwhile, its founders are looking for additional investment and to grow their team in Kitchener-Waterloo. The team needs scientists with a background in molecular diagnostics and people familiar with high-volume manufacturing.