News Release

Scientists develop new strategy that rapidly quantifies transmissibility of COVID-19 variants

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Trinity College Dublin

A team of researchers has developed a new nanomechanical technique for fast, one-step, immune-affinity tests, which can quantify the immune response induced by different COVID-19 variants in serum [Wednesday 13th October 2021]. Their technique provides a new tool for tracking infection immunity over time and for analysing new vaccine candidates.

Led by Professor Martin Hegner, Principal Investigator in the Trinity Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) and Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics, the team’s specific quantitative assay enables direct classification of variant-binding properties for screening emerging variants.

The major advantage of the newly developed technique with respect to (existing, commonly used) ELISA tests is that while it is equally sensitive – with added single amino-acid resolution – and able to directly detect multiple variants by in situ differential analysis, it can also do so in a mere fraction of the time.

Professor Hegner and his co-workers focused on COVID-19 variants of concern and their generated humoral immune response. Humoral immunity is an antibody-mediated response that occurs when foreign material is detected in the body. Given that the COVID-19 virus has developed substantial mutations in the spike protein this can undermine the efficacy of current vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies.

The technology developed by Professor Hegner and his team can assist vaccine development studies in phase 1-3, with focus on comparing protection patterns and analysing novel vaccine candidates.

The team’s findings have been published in the interdisciplinary journal, Nanoscale Advances, which is a high-impact, peer-reviewed journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Professor Hegner said:

“Our measurements match the statistical analysis of, for example, the transmissibility of the alpha-variant that can otherwise only be gained by analysing the development of the disease proliferation within a population over weeks. We believe that this new technology can improve and speed up the public health guidance process.

“The direct technique greatly simplifies the preparation protocol that in ELISA includes many washings and waiting steps, hence reducing the amount of consumables needed and thus the relative cost. It will therefore be well suited to use in emergency situations.”

About Professor Hegner

Professor Hegner’s work focuses on the development of innovative nanotechnological automated diagnostic platforms that underpin next-generation medical devices.

Pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest in Professor Hegner’s work in this scientific study, which provides the possibility of further miniaturising this device for portable point-of-care testing for the market and society.

Professor Hegner was awarded a Science Foundation Ireland Principal Investigator award in 2016, valued at €1.3m, which will enable him to continue his work in this field.


CRANN is one of Trinity College Dublin’s largest institutes and Ireland’s flagship nanoscience institute. It has significant infrastructure and brings together over 300 researchers from across Trinity’s Schools of Physics, Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and Pharmacology. CRANN is focused on delivering world leading research and innovation – through extensive proactive collaborations with industry, the commercialisation of intellectual property and the education of next generation researchers. The Institute is host to AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research), the Science Foundation Ireland funded centre, which provides a partnership between leading researchers in materials science and industry to develop new materials and devices for a range of sectors, particularly the ICT, medical devices and industrial technology sectors.

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