3M developing paper-based coronavirus test that could give results in minutes

People stand in a warehouse wearing face masks.
Staff at 3M labs in Maplewood are working on developing a paper-based test that will be able to detect coronavirus proteins. They're hoping to work with Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers to develop a point-of-care test for clinics that can detect the virus in minutes — a process comparable to home pregnancy tests.
Courtesy of 3M

Maplewood-based 3M says it is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a point-of-care test for the COVID-19 that could make diagnosing infections nearly as simple as a home pregnancy test.

“It’s actually looking for proteins that can be found in or on the virus itself,” said project lead Dr. Cathy Tarnowski, in an interview on the effort. She says one of the problems to solve is what kind of sample to use, a nasal swab or saliva for example. “We’re looking at a few different bodily fluids, but we haven’t landed on one yet — those pieces go into understanding what the accuracy can be.”

3M is trying to put that technology on paper — literally. It would provide a simple, disposable assay that any clinic can apply and interpret, even while a patient waits nearby. Tarnowski says part of 3M’s share of the research is focused in part on the more practical manufacturing process, aimed at meeting the NIH goal or making millions of the tests available weekly.

“We’re ready and poised to move into manufacturing as soon as we see the accuracy we’re looking for,” Tarnowski says.

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It could be a breakthrough for diagnosing COVID-19, the potentially fatal viral infection that has killed more than 1,500 people in Minnesota and more than 138,000 nationally. Current tests require substantial laboratory infrastructure as well as reagents and testing equipment that have sometimes been in short supply.

The paper test is still in early development, but has been fast-tracked by the National Institutes of Health with an initial approval for research and $500,000 in research funds. The effort is part of the NIH’s RADx program, or Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, aimed at making rapid, widespread and affordable testing available late this summer.

3M is teaming with researcher Hadley Sikes at MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering. Her lab specializes in molecular technology that can be used in protein tests such as the one 3M is developing. Research is going on in Massachusetts, Singapore and on the 3M campus in Minnesota. MIT scientists originally came up with the binding chemistry to detect telltale proteins in the virus.

People stand in a warehouse wearing face masks.
Staff at 3M labs in Maplewood are working on developing a paper-based test that will be able to detect coronavirus proteins.
Courtesy of 3M

Tarnowski won’t offer a timeline for the tests her team is working on, which are one of several technologies offered to the NIH in what she said was a “Shark Tank” type of screening program. The 3M-MIT effort was one of a number of responses to an initial call for testing proposals. But 3M’s test is one of a range of options the NIH has decided to pursue for more development and potential emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

Among the challenges: the coronavirus is difficult to detect, and tests have to very specifically pick it out from among other viruses and prevent false positive results. “A lot is unknown about this virus,” Tarnowski says.

Getting the tests out to the field is another challenge. Current testing is a three-step process involving collecting samples and then sending them into a lab for analysis and reporting the results back to a health care provider. Results can take days.