The latest in NUS' COVID-19 research
As one of the world’s leading research-intensive universities, NUS is at the cutting edge of innovative solutions in different areas of the COVID-19 crisis
NUS has proactively participated in the fight against COVID-19 since the crisis first began. By solving pressing issues in Singapore through national and international taskforces, and by advancing research and translation to fight COVID-19, NUS continues to devote considerable investments in both resources and funding to combat this pandemic.
In April 2020, NUS invested an initial S$1 million in seed funding to inspire innovative research ideas to tackle the pandemic, and support researchers to a level where they can compete for further external funding. The initial 10 selected projects span across many specialisations, namely: rapid testing, behavioural studies, specially designed protective wear, environmental recommendations for buildings, and intelligent data modelling. More projects will be selected and funded in future phases.
This seed funding is part of a S$4 million research fund set up by NUS to initiate and boost interdisciplinary research and innovative approaches in the detection, treatment and prevention of COVID-19.
The Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Programme team at Duke-NUS Medical School was among the first in the world to isolate the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19, after China and Australia. The team led by Professor Wang Linfa, Director of the EID Programme, and Assistant Professor Danielle Anderson, Scientific Director of the Duke-NUS ABSL3 laboratory, successfully cultured the virus from patient samples early in the outbreak and developed serological tests to identify an important missing link between two major COVID-19 clusters in Singapore. This was the first time a serological test was used to link different clusters of COVID-19 cases.
The Duke-NUS researchers, in collaboration with GenScript and Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), have now launched the world's first COVID-19 test kit that diagnoses the disease by identifying neutralising antibodies. Named the cPass™ the kit can measure the antibodies in an hour and will be a huge boost to current COVID-19 investigations, from contact tracing to assessing herd immunity. The global community will be able to use the cPass™ as unlike conventional test kits it does not require live biological materials or biosafety containment for testing. This test would be instrumental in vaccine and therapeutic development as it is suitable for all antibody isotypes and can be used to determine antibodies in different animal species without any modification.
Currently, the gold-standard for COVID-19 testing is known as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). However, testing can only take place in centralised laboratories due to its complexity and will take between six to 12 hours. Now, a highly promising, ‘point-of-care testing’ platform is being developed by Assistant Professor Shao Huilin from NUS Biomedical Engineering and the Institute for Health & Innovation Technology (iHealthtech), and Assistant Professor Catherine Ong from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. Known as ‘enVision’ (enzyme-assisted nanocomplexes for visual identiﬁcation of nucleic acids), the project is looking at an alternative to the current RT-PCR method of diagnosis.
The advantage of enVision is the ability to achieve quicker and improved diagnostic performance – getting accurate results from as little as 30 minutes with just a single test. It is also highly sensitive, has the ability to operate at room temperature, and is able to generate signals that are readily quantified by smartphones and other existing modalities. NUS is working with the National University Health System (NUHS) to clinically validate this exciting project.
Associate Professor Paul MacAry from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine is examining how the immune system detects and responds to viruses and other germs that cause human diseases. His laboratory is profiling the immune response in patients who have recovered from COVID-19 infection in Singapore, with the aim to identify the key cells and molecules that allowed patients to fight off this infection. This translates into vital information for vaccine development against coronavirus, as well as into new kits and tests that can be used to diagnose and manage infected patients.
AI for combination therapy
Professor Dean Ho, Head of NUS Biomedical Engineering, who is also Director of the NUS N.1 Institute for Health and the Institute for Digital Medicine (WisDM), is looking into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms to uncover new effective drug combinations and dosing strategies. This revolutionary technology known as known as ‘IDentif.AI’ (Identifying Infectious Disease Combination Therapy with Artificial Intelligence) is able to develop an optimal dose combination by picking the best drug and best doses at the same time. This drastically reduces the number of experiments needed to find this ultimate combination, and could revolutionise new drug development, and optimise drug repurposing. The platform can be immediately implemented on any other infectious disease model in the future.
Droplet and Aerosol Reducing Tent (DART)
NUS researchers, in collaboration with doctors from the National University Hospital (NUH), have developed a 'shield' which protects healthcare workers during intubation as this is a high-risk procedure. Known as the Droplet and Aerosol Reducing Tent (DART), it is a portable, tent-like structure that can be placed around the patient’s head when healthcare workers perform procedures like intubation or extubation. It can lessen the infection risk of such droplet and aerosol generating procedures by providing an extra layer of protection between the healthcare workers and the patient. It also helps to limit contamination to the surrounding environment, which could be a source of disease transmission.
It is lightweight and foldable, making it easy to transport, store and sterilise. It is also simple and fast to set up and connect to a vacuum pump, with an inbuilt High Efficiency Particulate Air filter that can reduce leakage of exhaled aerosols or droplets from the patient out of the confines of the DART. The team is looking to swiftly refine the DART based on feedback from different medical departments, and hopes to provide the device as a form of medical aid to Singapore hospitals as well as hospitals in the region.
In April, Singapore launched an online COVID-19 symptom checker to help the public decide on what their next steps should be based on the symptoms they are experiencing. The checker can also provide a source of reassurance for many citizens who would like to seek guidance on how to keep healthy during the developing COVID-19 situation. Researchers from NUS provided clinical advice for the development of this platform, and worked with teams from NUHS, NCID and the Ministry of Health Office for Healthcare Transformation.
To read the second article in this two-part series, click here.