How Revolutionary Light Tweezers Reduce Vaccine Development Time

Vaccine Development Time: The time it takes to develop a vaccine has been an issue for many years. The process is costly and can take up to 10 years or more, which means we’re always behind on the latest threats.

But new light-based technology could cut that time in half! Scientists at MIT have developed some revolutionary tweezers that use laser beams and holographic imaging to pull viruses apart and identify their DNA strands.

This allows them to analyze how they work and what makes them different from one another, which will make it easier for scientists around the world to create vaccines quickly when new strains emerge. It’s not just about speed; this technology also offers a higher level of accuracy than traditional methods, making our vaccines even safer!

Vaccine Development Time: NTU Singapore scientists create device that uses ‘light tweezers’ to  trap and move viruses  

vaccine development time: scientist preparing patient samples
Image by Cdc via Unsplash

Invention could help in vaccine development and virus research 

A team of scientists led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU  Singapore) has created a laser-powered device that can trap and move viruses using  light.  

The device, which has the ability to manipulate light to act as ‘tweezers’, would aid in  the development of new approaches to disease diagnosis and the study of viruses, as  the device can precisely ‘move’ a single virus to target a particular part of a cell.  

It would also aid in vaccine development, reduce vaccine development time, as the device allows scientists to separate  damaged or incomplete viruses from a group of thousands of other specimens in under  one minute, compared to current processes which are tedious and lacking in precision,  said the scientists. 

Associate Professor Eric Yap, from NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine,  a medical geneticist who co-led the research, said: “The conventional method of  analyzing viruses today is to study a population of thousands or millions of viruses

We only know their average behavior as an entire population. With our laser-based  technology, single viruses could be studied individually. 

“As well as diagnosing diseases, our device could be used to spot the outliers – the  rare individual virus that has the potential to evolve and create the next wave of an  epidemic, for instance.

This brings us into an era where we can contemplate precision  diagnostics at the single virus level.”

vaccine development time: centers for disease control and prevention
Image by Cdc via Unsplash

Vaccine Development Time: Light Tweezers not yet tested on Coronaviruses

The researchers tested their device known as a digital virus manipulation chip on  adenoviruses, which is a group of common viruses that can cause cold-like symptoms,  measuring 90 to 100 nanometre (nm) in diameter.

Although not yet tested on  coronaviruses, it has the potential to be used for research on SARS-CoV-2 virus,  which causes COVID-19, as it is similar in size, between 80 to 120 nm in diameter.

Professor Liu Aiqun, from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic  Engineering, who led the research, said: “Our invention uses light to manipulate  viruses in a certain size range and we have proven that it works with adenoviruses. 

We believe our device could also be used to trap and concentrate SARS-CoV-2 for  research and diagnosis.” 

The findings of the study were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal ACS  Sensors in September. 

Researchers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the University of Hong Kong,  the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Agency for Science,  Technology and Research (A*STAR), University of Technology Sydney and the  Australian National University, were also involved in the study. 

The ‘light’ way to manipulating viruses with great precision 

Measuring 2 cm by 2 cm, about the size of a thumbnail, the device consists of a chip  that is made from a wafer of silicon oxide and silicon nitride, with nanometer sized  cavities to contain the trapped viruses.

Above the chip is a laser directing highly  focused light beams with the right amount of energy to act as a pair of ‘tweezers’ that  can isolate and move viruses. 

The device works by loading a fluid that contains viruses, such as blood, into the chip (see video). After which, a laser beam is directed on to it, forming spots of light.

As the  intensity of the light is highest in the center of the spots, this creates a strong force  that attracts and traps the virus in designated cavities on the chip.  

By shifting the locations of the spots of light, viruses can be freely moved to other parts  of the chip. This allows for the easy sorting and concentrating of viruses of different  sizes, ranging from 40 nm to 300 nm. 

Vaccine Development Time: a breakthrough in virus research

“Our invention is a breakthrough in virus research as it allows us to single out individual  specimens for study, while comparable technologies today can only handle viruses in  large quantities,” said Prof Liu. 

“For example, we can isolate individual viruses with mutations to develop therapies  against these variants. Our invention uses insulating materials that are biocompatible  and do not heat up easily, unlike current sorting methods that generate a lot of heat. 

This means scientists should be confident in handling viruses with this device without  affecting their properties and viability.”

Assoc. Prof Yap added: “Using this technology, we could hand-pick specific virus  particles and study them to gain novel insights into them and the diseases they cause. 

For example, it could open new channels for more detailed analysis of specific virus  mutants, which could lead to new ways in characterizing and countering these viral  variants. “

The scientists are working on expanding the usage of their laser-powered device.  

For example, they are looking to study how the device can direct the isolated viruses  to infect a targeted part of a human cell.

The team said this would lead towards  advances in virus research and improve the efficiency of vaccine and anti-viral drug  development. 

The NTU research paper titled “Digital virus manipulation chip with a large array of all dielectric nanocavities“, is published in ACS Sensors, 10 September 2021 

Video 1: How the NTU-made device uses light to control the movement of viruses,  like Covid-19.

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