Advancing Diagnostics, Empowering PatientsAssistant Professor at NUS
When COVID-19 struck, biomedical engineer Dr Shao Huilin saw an opportunity to put her skills to good use.
Drawing on her expertise in non-invasive diagnostics, Dr Shao and her team worked relentlessly to develop and clinically validate a COVID-19 detection platform which can achieve the sensitivity of the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, but in as little as 30 minutes at room temperature. The test kit, which the team is now working on bringing to hospitals and clinics, is a modified version of an earlier platform developed by the team to diagnose other infectious diseases like Zika, Ebola, malaria, dengue, and hepatitis.
Her story began in Harvard University, where Dr Shao did her PhD training. During her clinical rotation, she observed that diagnostic tests in hospitals often involved invasive procedures and long, anxious waits.
“The experience left me wanting,” she says. “I wanted my interdisciplinary training to make a real impact, beyond the bounds of science labs. And as a biomedical engineer, I am committed to developing new generations of diagnostic technologies that can reveal important clinical information, much earlier and safer, to empower patient care.”
That experience marked the start of Dr Shao’s pursuit of better, non-invasive diagnostic technologies. And it has certainly paid off – in 2019, she won the prestigious Young Scientist Award, administered by the Singapore National Academy of Science (SNAS) and supported by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), which recognises innovative and productive young Singapore-based scientists.
Her COVID-19 kit is testament to that innovative spirit. Diverging from the traditional PCR kit’s approach, her technology’s sensing mechanism is inspired by biological cells – or “how nature has done it”, as Dr Shao quips. This design allows sensitive detection of COVID-19 targets, with a performance comparable to the best PCR test kits, and yet bypasses the time-consuming steps of PCR processing, such as sample preparation, reverse transcription, and thermal cycling.
“The entire assay is completed in as little as 30 minutes at room temperature, and can be performed near patients to provide rapid and accurate results,” Dr Shao explains.
The team is now collaborating with commercial partners to bring the platform to the patients. Dr Shao shares that she has been heartened by the support she has received in the past months – from members of the public expressing their interest in being part of clinical trials, to thank-you notes from patients who have benefitted from their technologies.
“These encouraging comments not only reaffirm our research goals, but also motivate my team to continue to do our very best,” she says. “With this, I truly believe the diagnostics field will emerge stronger post-pandemic.”
In the meantime, she is working on multiple new projects to bring forth a generation of smart diagnostic technologies for safe and informative detection of infectious diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and cancers. “These technologies not only advance the frontiers of science and engineering, but also bring important clinical benefits,” says Dr Shao.
“With our clinical collaborators, we have shown that these new technologies can expand the reach of previously under-appreciated biomarkers, reveal important disease insights through a single blood test, and guide treatment decisions in real time. We are also working closely with investors and commercial partners to translate our technologies,” she added.
“Together, we are pushing the boundaries of molecular diagnostics, to transform patient care with faster, more accurate and more affordable solutions.”