In what can serve as a new frontier in the testing for COVID-19, researchers from Simon Fraser University are working towards the development of coronavirus testing kits using cutting edge imaging technology.

Known as "Mango" for its vibrant color, the system was developed to detect RNA molecules. This not only aids in improved screening for viruses such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus but also in uncovering and understanding the basics in the functioning of cells.

Talking about the latest research that purposes Mango for the detection of individual RNA molecules within living cells, Peter Unrau, co-developer of the technology, said: "We are using the Mango system as a catalyst, to allow us to not only extend fundamental research questions but also to detect pathogens like the coronavirus, faster and more efficiently."

Live cell imaging
Representational Picture Wikimedia Commons

How does Mango work?

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus — which means it is a virus whose genetic material is RNA. Mango is specifically designed to detect RNA molecules. Therefore, it has the potential to enable effective testing for the highly virulent pathogen.

Mango comprises of an RNA aptamer that attaches firmly and particularly to a fluorescent dye. An aptamer is a short single-stranded RNA molecule that can hone in on specific targets and bind with it. Acting like a magnet, the aptamer focuses on the dye particles in this case. Upon binding, the dye becomes excitable and glows brilliantly.

Live cell imaging
Lena Dolgosheina, co-developer of Mango, with the system Simon Fraser University

Now, the RNA molecules engineered to carry the aptamer, stand out from other constituents of the cell. This facilitates easier microscopic study of RNA molecules. Pointing out that most cellular regulatory activities occur at the RNA level, Unrau explained: "For a long time, the focus has been on protein but it is RNA and not protein that regulates the vast majority of processes within a cell."

Mango for the testing of coronavirus

With new funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the researchers can now work towards the development of an isothermal testing method known as the Mango NABSA (nucleic acid sequence-based amplification). An isothermal test is one where the temperature is constant and controlled.

"Mango technology is state of the art and the development of effective cures for cancer and other diseases demand better imaging methodologies to rapidly learn how cells work in detail," Unrau, who also the co-author of the study presenting the findings, added.