Cambridge Team Develops 90-Minute Rapid Diagnosis Test for Viral Infections to Be Deployed in U.K. Hospitals

A University of Cambridge spin-out company has developed an innovative rapid diagnostic testing solution that will be available nationwide in a number of hospitals in Britain.
Susan Fourtané
NIHR researcher processing samples using SAMBA II machinesCambridge University Hospital 

A new diagnostic testing solution for viral infections called SAMBA II is capable of diagnosing an infected patient in under 90 minutes. The new test, developed by a University of Cambridge spin-out, is currently being deployed at Cambridge hospitals, in England, ahead of being launched in a number of hospitals across The United Kingdom. 

The SAMBA II is a connected platform for infectious disease management. The SAMBA II machines, will be used by healthcare workers at point-of-care in order to rapidly diagnose patients, directing those who test positive for the infection to dedicated wards, eliminating long waits, and potentially saving lives. The rapid testing can also play a paramount role by quickly identifying Britain’s National Healthcare Service (NHS) workers who are infected even if they do not show symptoms, enabling those who test negative to safely return to the front line. 

The SAMBA II machines have been developed by Diagnostics for the Real World (DRW), a spin-out company from the Diagnostics Development Unit (DDU) at the University of Cambridge, a company established in 2003 to bridge the gap between the cutting-edge research conducted by the DDU and the patients who could really benefit from it.  

The SAMBA II machines promise to provide a simple and accurate system for the diagnosis of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the novel disease COVID-19. 

The deployment of SAMBA II machines that will be made available to a number of hospitals across Britain will be possible thanks to a £2.4 million (about $3 million) donation from businessman and philanthropist Sir Chris Hohn. The donation will enable the purchase of 100 machines. The NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre will also provide research nurses to support the deployment of the machines. 

The donation has enabled Addenbrooke's Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, to obtain the first 10 SAMBA II machines. The machines are for use in wards where suspected infected patients are brought in. The Cambridge Trust will match the donation by purchasing 10 additional machines.  

According to the University of Cambridge, "SAMBA II looks for tiny traces of genetic material belonging to the virus, amplifies it billions of times chemically, and is therefore extremely sensitive in the detection of active infections." 

"Our goal has always been to make cutting-edge technology so simple and robust that the SAMBA II machine can be placed literally anywhere and operated by anyone with minimum training," said Dr. Helen Lee, CEO of Diagnostics for the Real World. Dr. Lee is also Associate Professor in Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, and winner of the European Inventor Award 2016 in the Popular Prize category. Dr. Lee has filed several patents of her diagnostic kits for developing countries' inventions. 

How the SAMBA II machine for viral infection rapid testing works 

According to Diagnostics for the Real World, "the tablet module controls the assay module and receives all results via Bluetooth. The tablet module can send results to the Bluetooth printer, or via SMS, mobile Internet, or Wi-Fi to a backup tablet or a tablet in a remote clinic that send their samples to be tested with SAMBA II. The tablet module can also send test results in a standard format to a laboratory information system (LIS), to a Ministry of Health service, or to the SAMBA dashboard. Test results can also be downloaded directly from the tablet via USB. With SAMBA II, test results can be sent to those that need them."

SAMBA II: 90-minute test for viral infections 

"Patients will provide a nasal and throat swab. Once these have been loaded into the SAMBA II machine, the remainder of the process is fully automated. At the moment, tests are sent for analysis in centralized laboratories and this, compounded by the sheer number of samples that are having to be analyzed, means that diagnosis can take one to two days. SAMBA II is able to deliver results while the patient waits, helping healthcare workers ensure that those infected can be quickly directed to specialized wards. Whereas current tests can take over 24 hours or longer to deliver their results, SAMBA II is able to deliver a diagnosis in less than 90 minutes," according to the University of Cambridge. 

The Public Health England, Cambridge, validated the tests performed in 102 patient samples. The tests have shown to have the ability to correctly identify positive cases to up to 98.7 percent, demonstrating a positive margin when compared to the tests currently used by the NHS/Public Health England. 

The evaluation was conducted by Dr Martin Curran, who said he was "extremely happy with the performance of the SAMBA test because it matched the routine centralized laboratory results. The technology behind SAMBA II was developed while Dr. Helen Lee was working at Cambridge’s Department of Hematology. 

Sir Chris Hohn said he was “delighted to have supported Dr. Lee’s important research and now help begin the rollout of this cutting-edge technology across the NHS. This is a game changer.” The SAMBA II machine will also be used to test healthcare workers, especially in high-risk areas such as intensive care units. By identifying asymptomatic individuals quickly, they can self-isolate, preventing transmission to other individuals. 

Cambridge researchers develop coronavirus test for frontline NHS workers 

Currently, the lack of testing has resulted in severe healthcare staff shortages across The United Kingdom. The new SAMBA II machine rapid testing for patients might be, indeed, a game changer as Sir Chris Hohn said.

Following the news of the SAMBA II machine, the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID) revealed a new test for infection with SARS-CoV2 which inactivates the virus at the point of sampling. The test is now being used to test and screen frontline NHS staff at a Cambridge hospital. 

By inactivating the virus at the point of sampling, the researchers led by Professor Stephen Baker can carry out their work rapidly in Level 2 facilities, which are widely available and have less restrictions on their use. "PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests for coronavirus infection are slow because of the safety requirements necessary for handling this potentially lethal virus," said Professor Baker.

By using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, scientists are able to extract a miniscule amount of RNA from the virus and copy it a million times. This creates an amount large enough to confirm presence of the virus. Due to the infectious nature of the coronavirus, samples had to be processed in containment Level 3 facilities slowing down the testing process because of the high safety requirements of such facilities.

Moving testing to Level 2 facilities accelerates the process dramatically, as Professor Baker explained. Using the modified PCR test, the scientists are able to diagnose infection in four hours. The current tests take over 24 hours to return a result. 

"Now that we are able to inactivate it, we can dramatically improve the turnaround time from swab to result. This will be extremely useful in helping test NHS frontline staff, and helping clarify whether self-isolating healthcare staff are infected or negative, potentially allowing them to return to work," said Professor Baker. 

The chemical substances used to detect the virus allow researchers to test 200 samples a day, five days a week, for the next 10 to 12 weeks. Professor Baker hopes to be able to expand this capacity in the future. 

Cambridge Univesity Hospital recently announced a partnership with AstraZeneca and GSK to set up a new testing laboratory at the University's Anne McLaren Building. The new facility will serve for high throughput screening for COVID-19 testing as well as to explore the use of alternative chemical reagents (the chemical substances used to detect the virus) for test kits. This, in turn, will help overcome current supply shortages.

Companies, universities, researchers, and individuals around the world are collaborating and sharing information to help everyone overcome the coronavirus outbreak. Here is an interactive page that showcases some of the projects. 

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