Prenetics Ltd. is working with Oxford University researchers again to develop molecular diagnostic testing for the new COVID-19 variants, six months after it acquired Oxsed Ltd., a University of Oxford University spinoff to enable rapid airport testing.

On April 19, Hong Kong-based Prenetics inked a multimillion-dollar partnership with the University of Oxford and Oxford Suzhou Center for Advanced Research (OSCAR) to upgrade the molecular testing technology Oxlamp for infectious diseases.

Under this three-year partnership, work will be carried out in parallel in Oxford and Suzhou, China. OSCAR is the university's first overseas research center for physical science and engineering, with research directed by Oxford professors. Prenetics will set up an innovation technology center directed by Wei Huang, an engineering science professor at the University of Oxford, at OSCAR for advanced molecular diagnostics to work with Oxford researchers.

“The Oxford team looks into diseases more relevant to the U.K. and the west, while the OSCAR team looks into diseases more relevant to China,” Zhanfeng Cui, founding director at OSCAR and the Donald Pollock professor of chemical engineering at the University of Oxford, told BioWorld. “In this way, the research outcomes can be closer to the end users.”

He added that OSCAR will host the Prenetics innovation technology center and provides space and facilities to the center, while Prenetics will provide additional funds to sponsor research on molecular diagnostics.

The Prenetics innovation technology center will also bring in researchers in bio-sensing, clinical virology, microbiology and medical devices.

“We expect more top researchers to be based in Suzhou and in Oxford over the next three years into our technology center,” said Danny Yeung, co-founder, and group CEO of Prenetics.

The testing startup was founded in 2009 as a spinoff from a university project in Hong Kong. It now has more than $60 million in funding.

For the outcome of this partnership, Cui told BioWorld that the goal is to make the Oxlamp test cheaper and faster, down to 15 minutes or even shorter, suitable for home testing or self-testing, and capable of detecting new variants.

The first Oxlamp Ravid Direct SARS-CoV-2 test was developed to deliver test results in around 20 minutes, without the use of a traditional laboratory and with 96% sensitivity and 99.9% specificity.

The product has been used in different airports, including London Heathrow. It has received CE-IVD, MHRA approval and researchers are seeking a submission to the FDA under the EUA protocols for SARS-CoV-2.

“Validation and clinical trial of the next generation test products will be completed in May 2021, and new product launch will come shortly after,” Cui said.

The new partnership came after Prenetics acquired and commercialized Oxsed, an Oxford University spinoff company, in October 2020 to scale rapid COVID-19 test globally. The Oxsed Ravid Direct SARS-CoV-2 test is based on the work of Cui and Huang, who will continue to work with Prenetics on the Oxlamp test this time.

The Oxsed test is a rapid diagnostic assay that detects SARS-CoV-19 in nasopharyngeal swabs, oropharyngeal swabs, as well as saliva and mouthwash specimens collected from symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

The test demonstrated high sensitivity and specificity, with validated trials demonstrating a 92% to 100% positive agreement. It can be performed anywhere and deliver results in 15 to 30 minutes. The technology was in use at London Heathrow and Hong Kong airport.

For the Oxsed test, researchers developed a viral RNA molecular test identified as a nucleic acid amplification test using RT-LAMP technology, one of the nucleic acid amplification methods approved by the FDA for diagnostic COVID-19 testing. This method slashes the time required for getting accurate results, from a minimum of 4 to 6 hours down to just within 15 to 30 minutes.

With a faster turnaround and higher sensitivity and specificity, the Oxlamp is believed to be an upgrade of the Oxsed test.

With the COVID-19 pandemic yet to be under control worldwide, both Prenetics and the Oxford researchers agreed that a deeper scientific and long-term collaboration is needed to upgrade the molecular diagnostic testing to combat the disease.

“When we think about the future, especially with the pandemic, it's very apparent to us that testing is here to stay with us for years to come,” Cui said. “Our goal is to decentralize laboratory testing with rapid, highly accurate, molecular testing, not just for COVID-19 but for all infectious diseases.”

Cui and his partners want to achieve so by developing new generations of COVID-19 test products that can be faster, cheaper and more accurate, as well as “rapid tests for other infectious diseases for point of need testing,” he told BioWorld.