Professor Helping Develop Better Way to Diagnose COVID-19

December 18, 2020

COVID-19 graphic
A Mizzou Engineer has teamed up with a company to help develop a better way to diagnose COVID-19.

Dong Xu, Shumaker Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is working with a company applying nanopore sequencers to test DNA samples for the virus. Xu will then help develop a system to analyze the DNA data.

Dong Xu portrait

Dong Xu

“DNA contains many other sequences, including other viruses and bacteria, so we will sort it out to identify whether there is any coronavirus in the sample,” he said. “This method can also tell what kinds of virus sequence the sample contains, and that can help to tell whether it is a more severe type of COVID or a milder version.”

Right now, health care workers test for the virus using nasal swabs. One method looks to see whether COVID-19 has triggered an immune response by detecting a certain antibody. While this method is typically fast, those results aren’t always accurate. In contrast, traditional DNA testing methods can be slow, but the results are often accurate. This project aims to provide better, speedier results.

“DNA testing is much more accurate,” Xu said. “Our goal is to make a DNA-based method faster while at the same time preserving the accuracy.”

Ideally, the proposed testing method would diagnose COVID-19 within 15 minutes of a person providing a salvia sample, Xu said. He is also working with the company on a companion project that would use similar methods to detect pneumonia-causing pathogens.

Xu has worked with the company on previous projects and was eager to help out in the fight against COVID-19.

“As a researcher, we not only want to address the fundamental science problems, but we also like to help real societal issues,” he said. “This coronavirus has a big impact on all of us. A lot of researchers, including myself, want to try to find a way to do our part.”