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31 Aug 2021

Researchers create low-cost genetic material extraction platform by repurposing a 3D printer

Researchers from the Doherty Institute have found a way to convert a low-cost 3D printer into a high-quality RNA extraction platform, enabling labs anywhere to access high-performance COVID-19 testing.

University of Melbourne Professor Tim Stinear, a laboratory head at the Doherty Institute and one of the lead researchers said the team embarked on the project after realising early in the COVID-19 pandemic that access to high-quality diagnostics was key to supporting an effective public health response.

“Gold standard diagnostic testing involves taking a nasal swab specimen from a person and then, in a laboratory, extracting the genetic material (RNA) in that specimen. The RNA is then subjected to a molecular test such as PCR that will reveal if virus was present in the specimen,” Professor Stinear explained.

“Whilst well-financed laboratories perform this process with automated, robotic platforms that can test hundreds of specimens in a day, less well-resourced labs rely on manual methods that are slow and may be prone to user error.

“We wanted to address this inequity and develop a low-cost, automated, RNA extraction platform that would enable labs anywhere to access high-performance COVID-19 testing.”

The platform is created by taking a readily available open-source 3D printer that costs around $300 and hijacking its robotics to allow it to make the movements required for semi-automated viral RNA extraction.

“We were able to show with a series of experiments using clinical specimens that the modified printer, which we named the Ender VX-500, performs almost as well as a high-end automated COVID-19 diagnostic system,” Professor Stinear said.

“And all the parts needed to convert it can actually be made on the instrument itself, so there’s minimal additional cost involved.”

The team have made all instructions on how to make and use the Ender VX-500 publicly available and have published their work in ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering.

You can also view their how-to video below.