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Back in January, Christopher Toumazou was trying to help people choose what foods to eat based on their individual genetic makeup, with a service called. The idea was to take a cheek swab, run your sample through a small device to analyze your genes, and determine if you're predisposed to health issues like diabetes or hypertension. Then your DNA gets loaded into a wearable bracelet. At the grocery store, you scan the bar code of virtually any food, and the bracelet lights up green if it's good for you, and red if it's bad.
The goal was to help people prevent obesity and chronic disease with better nutrition choices based on their genes -- similar to 23andMe, but with no need for a lab to analyze results. But getting such a personalized device like this into a hospital setting for wider use proved difficult.
Then the 5.8 million tests to be used in National Health Service hospitals.hit. Suddenly, a testing tool that could deliver accurate results quickly was extremely valuable. Toumazou adapted the service to provide COVID-19 test results within 90 minutes -- no lab needed. In August, the UK government ordered
"The hospitals are loving this deployment because they don't have to worry about putting a negative into COVID-positive beds," said Toumazou, who is the CEO of DnaNudge as well as a professor of engineering at Imperial College London. "They can screen them very quickly."
Here's how it works: A nurse performs a nasal or phlegm swab, and places it into the circular device, about the same size as a hockey puck. The stick comes out, and the device is sealed with the sample inside. Then it goes into a shoebox-like device called a NudgeBox, where it gets analyzed (it can also test for the flu and other respiratory infections at the same time). Once the test is done, the cartridge is thrown away -- no genetic information is stored, Tomazou said.
Trials with COVID Nudge indicated high levels of accuracy, and it was authorized by the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. It also received the CE mark -- the UK's equivalent to FDA approval, which means it can be used in non-clinical locations like care homes. The company has also applied for FDA approval with plans to expand to the US.
The company has also launched a bubble test from its retail shop in London, which lets you test everyone from your COVID "pod" or "bubble" (the small group of family or friends who some people have agreed to spend time with exclusively during the pandemic) on the same device at once. If even one person is positive, that means everyone needs to quarantine. It's meant to be used for asymptomatic people in pods in low-prevalence areas who want to have a regular test to protect one another. The bubble test costs £100 for up to 10 people.
As of Tuesday, the bubble test is now available to purchase online as well, so you can test one another from home and send the device off to get your results. The process usually takes two to three days total. It's available in the UK. (If you're in the US, on Tuesday, the FDA approved the first coronavirus at-home test as well, from Lucira Health.)
Since the company is selling the tests to hospitals at cost, the bubble testing is a way to make a profit.
For now, the COVID Nudge tests are primarily found in UK hospitals. But the company is expanding into retail outlets in the UK as well. Eventually, people could have the tests in their homes, but for now, the box itself would cost a few thousand pounds.
When COVID does start to die away, genetic health and nutrition testing will still be important. "We're almost using a pandemic to treat an epidemic," Toumazou said. "People are looking after their health now a lot more because of the severity of COVID. If you've got diabetes or obesity or some chronic condition, there's a warning."
It took the war zone of the coronavirus to open up the hospital doors to a decentralized device like this, he added. "So what will come out of it?" Toumazou said. "I think we'll be closer toward personalized healthcare with the technologies that have been developed to fight the corona away."