Commercially available mass spectrometers can be reliably used to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, according to research from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). In a study recently published in Clinical Proteomics, the researchers introduce a novel method that leverages equipment already in use in hospitals and laboratories for detecting bacterial and fungal infections.
The entire process, from taking a swab to receiving results, takes just two hours. The research team believes that this method can be easily adapted to identify other pathogens, potentially serving as a valuable tool in managing future pandemics.
The new method requires a nasal or throat swab. The sample needs to be prepared before it can be analyzed by a mass spectrometer, which takes only a few seconds. In MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry, a laser pulse is used to transfer the sample to the gas phase – then the mass of the individual components is measured.
“This allows us to directly and unambiguously measure individual virus particles of the coronavirus. Thus false-positive results can be ruled out,” says Professor Andrea Sinz from the Institute of Pharmacy at MLU, who specializes in mass spectrometry and proteins. Her team was already able to show in July 2020 that mass spectrometers are generally capable of detecting SARS-CoV-2. However, at this time, the method was still time-consuming and required very high-end equipment.
The advantage of the new method is that MALDI-TOF mass spectrometers are already being used in many laboratories and clinics to diagnose bacterial or fungal infections and are thus readily available. The devices can even distinguish between different variants of the virus. However, the method is not yet as sensitive as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), the most sensitive corona test to date. This means that not all infections may be detected when there is a very low viral load. On the other hand, it is much faster and more flexible.
“In acute phases, the method would make an ideal addition to PCR because we would be able to analyze a lot of samples very quickly. Rapid and reliable results may make it easier to contain outbreaks,” explains Lydia Kollhoff, lead author of the study. Moreover, the approach could be adapted rather easily to other pathogens in future pandemics and supplement PCR testing.
The scientists from Halle want to further optimize the method in partnership with the University of Leipzig Medical Centre. Following this, the method would undergo a certification process so that it could be used clinically.
Reference: “Development of a rapid and specific MALDI-TOF mass spectrometric assay for SARS-CoV-2 detection” by Lydia Kollhoff, Marc Kipping, Manfred Rauh, Uta Ceglarek, Günes Barka, Frederik Barka, and Andrea Sinz, 1 July 2023, Clinical Proteomics.
The study was funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation).