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Scientists Apply Raman Spectroscopy to COVID-19 Testing

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One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the lack of testing needed to detect and trace infections. Many tests use biochemicals that can be expensive and difficult to produce. These tests can require long turnaround times for test results and can produce a high number of false negative results.

A Northern Arizona University (NAU) research team, led by professor Miguel José Yacamán, is developing a new test technology for SARS-CoV-2 using single-molecule surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SM-SERS). The researchers are applying concepts from the fields of nanotechnology, plasmonics, and 2D materials to their development process. “The project team will use nontraditional techniques to detect virus in infected patients,” Yacamán said. “We will develop an alternative method based on recent advances in physics related to the interaction of light with matter.”

NAU physicist and materials scientist Miguel José Yacamán is leading an interdisciplinary team to develop a new test technology for the coronavirus that is based on physics, not biochemicals, that could overcome the challenges presented by current shortages of test kits and test efficacy. Courtesy of Northern Arizona University.

NAU physicist and materials scientist Miguel José Yacamán is leading an interdisciplinary team to develop a new test technology for the coronavirus that is based on physics, not biochemicals, that could overcome the challenges presented by current shortages of test kits and test efficacy. Courtesy of Northern Arizona University.

The researchers will use SM-SERS to detect the S proteins of the SARs-Cov-2 virus, which are involved in infection at the cellular level. Yacamán previously used SERS to detect glycoproteins and sialic acid as a method of testing for breast cancer. This testing approach is now in the final approval stage for commercial use. 


Yacamán believes that his team’s research into SARS-CoV-2 testing could be the first step in developing a physics-based testing approach that would be fast and inexpensive, provide high sensitivity and specificity, and deliver a low percentage of false negatives. “This test will be a much more precise and reliable method to detect infections,” he said.

Once the test is developed, portable Raman equipment could allow the test to be used widely in many different populations — for example, in rural or remote communities or in point-of-care stations in schools, factories, and community centers, in addition to traditional testing sites.

The project is a joint effort between researchers in the Center for Materials Interfaces in Research and Applications (¡MIRA!), who will develop the new testing technology, and scientists in the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI), who will grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their labs.

The project, called “Development of a New Test for SARS-CoV-2 Using Single Molecule Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy,” was awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding program supporting virus-related research. Although the team has one year to develop the new test, Yacamán plans to achieve this goal sooner. “Once widespread testing is underway, further analysis of the SM-SERS data will help scientists understand changes on the virus proteins and help develop antiviral drugs,” he said.

Published: May 2020
Glossary
nano
An SI prefix meaning one billionth (10-9). Nano can also be used to indicate the study of atoms, molecules and other structures and particles on the nanometer scale. Nano-optics (also referred to as nanophotonics), for example, is the study of how light and light-matter interactions behave on the nanometer scale. See nanophotonics.
nanotechnology
The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
plasmonics
Plasmonics is a field of science and technology that focuses on the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and free electrons in a metal or semiconductor at the nanoscale. Specifically, plasmonics deals with the collective oscillations of these free electrons, known as surface plasmons, which can confine and manipulate light on the nanometer scale. Surface plasmons are formed when incident photons couple with the conduction electrons at the interface between a metal or semiconductor...
raman spectroscopy
Raman spectroscopy is a technique used in analytical chemistry and physics to study vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system. Named after the Indian physicist Sir C.V. Raman who discovered the phenomenon in 1928, Raman spectroscopy provides information about molecular vibrations by measuring the inelastic scattering of monochromatic light. Here is a breakdown of the process: Incident light: A monochromatic (single wavelength) light, usually from a laser, is...
single-molecule spectroscopy
An advanced technique that allows the detection of one molecule within a crystal or a cell through optical excitation. Single-molecule spectroscopy (SMS) can image at subwavelength scales, down to a dozen of nanometers. It has applications in various fields of natural science, including but not limited to biophysics, quantum physics and nanoscience. SMS helps clarify long-standing problems in chemistry and biology, such as observing and examining single molecules. It also provides critical...
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