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Diagnostics COVID-19, Analytical science, Biochemistry and molecular biology

Diamonds Are a Diagnostician’s Best Friend

We are almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and, though both point-of-care and lab diagnostics have come a long way, there is always room for improvement. Recognizing this, researchers from the Massachusetts Information Technology and the University of Waterloo have developed a new approach to testing for SARS-CoV-2 – based on theoretical quantum effects (1).

The approach involves coating nanodiamonds that contain nitrogen vacancy centers (atomic-scale defects that are highly sensitive to tiny alterations) with a magnetically coupled material that bonds only with the RNA sequence of SARS-CoV-2. Presence of virus-specific RNA disrupts this magnetic connection and changes the fluorescence of the diamond, which is then detected by a sensor. In the paper, the authors state that the rapid method is “fast and promises to reach a sensitivity down to a few hundreds of RNA copies with false negative rate less than one percent.”

Using mathematical simulations, MIT researchers have shown that it would be possible to design a sensor, based on quantum physics, that could detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Credit: Courtesy of the researchers, edited by MIT News.

“The proposed approach is appealing both for its generality and its technological simplicity,” said David Glenn, senior research scientist at Quantum Diamond Technologies Inc., though he was not associated with the research (2). “The sensitive, all-optical detection technique described here requires minimal instrumentation compared to other methods that employ nitrogen vacancy centers.”

What’s next? The team now hopes to translate their mathematical simulations into a working device that can be used in the lab to confirm their predictions. “Even if complications arise in translating the theoretical analysis into a working device, there is such a large margin of lower false negatives predicted from this work that it will likely still have a strong advantage over standard PCR tests,” said senior author Paola Cappellaro (2). “And even if the accuracy were the same, this method would still have a major advantage in producing its results in a matter of minutes, rather than requiring several hours.”

Hero and Teaser image provided by Matthias Weinberger from

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  1. C Li et al., Nano Lett, 22, 43 (2021). PMID: 34913700.
  2. David L. Chandler (2021). Available at:
About the Author
Liv Gaskill

During my undergraduate degree in psychology and Master’s in neuroimaging for clinical and cognitive neuroscience, I realized the tasks my classmates found tedious – writing essays, editing, proofreading – were the ones that gave me the greatest satisfaction. I quickly gathered that rambling on about science in the bar wasn’t exactly riveting for my non-scientist friends, so my thoughts turned to a career in science writing. At Texere, I get to craft science into stories, interact with international experts, and engage with readers who love science just as much as I do.

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