【Academic Community-NTU】Food safety inspection technology can be used on COVID-19 testing! Cheng-Chih Hsu proposed the world first Mass Spectrometry COVID-19 screening lab

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Dr. Cheng-Chih Hsu 

works as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University. He finished his Ph.D. in Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University. He specialized in biomedical Mass Spectrometry analysis and analytical chemistry. His lab is now focusing on the research of Mass Spectrometry application on biological research as well as clinical diagnosis.

Research labs and R&D teams around the world are working together to seek cures for COVID-19 at a record high speed. Although Taiwan has successfully contained the virus at the early stage of the outbreak, local research teams remain highly engaged in various COVID-19 researches across different disciplines. Assistant Professor Cheng-Chih Hsu at the Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University (NTU), collaborated with his Canadian counterpart to develop a new COVID-19 testing method. With infrastructure supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), Professor Hsu started building the world's first P2 laboratory that uses mass spectrometry to test COVID-19. With its ability to test both antigen and antibody samples fast and accurately, this COVID-19 screening method has great potential in infectious diseases prevention.


▲▼    Assistant Professor Cheng-Chih Hsu and his team at the Department of Chemistry, NTU, working to implement mass spectrometry technology on COVID-19 testing. 


The COVID-19 pandemic poses unprecedented challenges to countries’ capabilities to implement feasible measures and to strengthen R&D foundation to counter react the outbreak. Some of the world’s leading companies, such as Swiss-based Roche Holding AG and Korean-based SolGent Co., Ltd., started to develop the COVID-19 rapid-test kits at the early stage of the pandemic, helping their countries to contain the virus efficiently. Although rapid tests can detect the virus within a few minutes, the accuracy of the result has often been questioned. In Taiwan, the method used for COVID-19 screening is still polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which is time-consuming but provides more accurate results.

Professor Hsu’s team has been working on the testing method that can precisely screen the virus within a short period. Specializing in mass spectrometry imaging, Professor Hsu integrated this technology to the research and invited his Canadian counterpart to co-develop this new testing technique. Under the Instrument Information System of MOST, Professor Hsu also collaborated with NTU Instrumentation Center to finish the early-stage process for this technique. This project will become the world's first P2 laboratory that runs COVID-19 testing with mass spectrometer. 

The world first P2 laboratory using mass spectrometer to test COVID-19  

▲    The world first P2 laboratory using mass spectrometer to test COVID-19  

Mass spectrometry is a technology that has been widely used in food safety inspection. The theory behind the mass spectrometer is to analyze samples through the signal of chromatographic separation and then use analytical software to illustrate a mass spectrum, which provides information on sample molecules. Professor Hsu applies this technology to analyze the testing sample after adding the antibody to detect virus antigen, and then enhances the signal with the enzyme. He explained that “mass spectrometry is more sensitive than spectral analysis. It can also avoid false negative caused by replication of wrong RNA segment during PCR testing.”

Research Technician Hsin-I Wu at NTU Instrumentation Center, MOST assists in COVID-19 protein identification.

▲    Research Technician Hsin-I Wu at NTU Instrumentation Center, MOST assists in COVID-19 protein identification. 

Professor Hsu pointed out that when this technology becomes mature, all the food security inspection units can help the government on COVID-19 screening. In fact, lots of hospitals have already equipped with mass spectrometers to diagnose microbiological infection, which can be used on COVID-19 testing in the future to increase the country’s capacity on virus testing.

The process may sound simple with Professor Hsu’s explanation, but the actual testing protocol is rather complicated. Every member on his team plays a key role in different parts of the experiment. At the beginning of the virus testing process, every sample needs to be extracted and packed into centrifuge tubes inside Biosafety Cabinet (BSC) and sterilized in Autoclave under high temperature and pressure before moving on to the COVID-19 testing process. Every step of the experiment is important and needs to be done cautiously by experienced professionals. Currently, two of the youngest members of the team, Wei-Chieh Wang and Peng-Hsuan Huang, college seniors at NTU, are well-trained by Professor Hsu and are more than willing to use their skills to help the country in the future if needed.

The youngest members in the research team, Wei-Chieh Wang and Peng-Hsuan Huang, college seniors at NTU.

▲▼    The youngest members in the research team, Wei-Chieh Wang and Peng-Hsuan Huang, college seniors at NTU. 

The reason to dive into COVID-19 research “is actually a coincidence. In the beginning, we tried to identify the SARS virus through mass spectrometry because it is similar to the novel coronavirus we are facing this time. Since COVID-19 has developed into a global pandemic, we decided to fully engage in research and development of the new COVID-19 screening method,” said Professor Hsu. He continued to answer a student’s question on when will the epidemic end by using the concept of chemical kinetics theory to illustrate the growth of COVID-19 cases in different countries. The surprisingly accurate prediction attracts reports and interviews from international media, such as The Economist and The Asahi Shinbum.

 Assistant Professor Cheng-Chih Hsu at Department of Chemistry, NTU. 

▲    Assistant Professor Cheng-Chih Hsu at Department of Chemistry, NTU. 

At the end of the interview, Professor Hsu briefly shared his opinions on the pandemics, “I feel that sometimes misfortune can be a blessing in disguise; although China and Korea were hit hard by COVID-19, their biotechnology research could advance after the pandemic.” When countries around the world are showing high efficiency in COVID-19 prevention research, Taiwan’s countermeasure in COVID-19 R&D could be rather conservative and slow due to the relatively stable situation. He suggested that “we need to think about what and how can Taiwan help the world when we continue to emphasize that Taiwan can help. Currently, Taiwan is the only country where universities and laboratories are still operating, we should take this opportunity to develop basic research related to the epidemic.” It is also worth thinking of how to balance epidemic prevention and scientific research during the time of the global pandemic.

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