Kilian J. Kessler

peakPCR: Making DNA Analyses Faster and More Accessible

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is a commonly-used technique to amplify and detect DNA and PCR-based testing has been widely adopted as a method to detect SARS-CoV-2 infections. While this method is sensitive, it is currently slow and costly. To overcome these challenges, this project aims to develop a portable PCR device that will allow viral testing to be carried out more rapidly, at a lower cost and outside of high-tech environments. The device will have the potential to increase diagnostic capacity not only in high-income countries such as Switzerland, but also in low- and middle-income settings.

PCR is a biomolecular technique to amplify and detect DNA that is used in a wide range of fields, such as diagnostics, biology and forensic sciences. Many PCR devices are available on the market, but their use is limited to major research institutes and laboratories due to the high price barrier (initial investment and operation costs) as well as the instruments’ size and low speed (one reaction can take more than 2 hours).

With the aim of making DNA analysis more accessible, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current urgent need for easy-to-use rapid diagnostics tests, the team developed a new PCR instrument for real-time PCR analysis at low cost. The instrument is built with inexpensive and easily available components and is driven by an innovative and proprietary technology designed to reduce reaction time and effort. Now, the team focuses on fine-tuning the instrument design, as well as performing validation experiments and testing a workflow protocol that would enable at-home use.

Ultimately, the team aims to be able to deploy a new PCR instrument that is fast, portable, economical and resource-efficient. This device may enable rapid point-of-care testing for COVID-19, influenza and other diseases, that will be applicable for use in both resource-abundant and resource-limited settings.

Banner Image: Two designs for PCR machines to make these devices more accessible and portable. They can be controlled through a smartphone app.  

A researcher prepares a sample to load into the desktop PCR device, pictured on the right. Photo: ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella

A researcher places a sample holder into the PCR device. Photo: ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella

Two researchers innovate to make PCR devices smaller and more portable. On the left, a researcher holds a sample holder and on the right, a researcher holds a portable PCR prototype, based on their earlier desktop design, the silver pyramid sitting on the lab bench. Photo: ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella

Two researchers innovate to make PCR devices smaller and more portable. Photo: Kilian J. Kessler

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