CORONAVIRUS/Science will prevail in fight against COVID-19: Tang Prize winner (Focus Taiwan)

  • Feng Zhang, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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Focus Taiwan

Massachusetts, March 31 (CNA) Feng Zhang (張鋒), a synthetic biologist and 2016 Tang Prize laureate in biopharmaceutical science, said he is confident science will help to contain COVID-19 in the near future.


"I am very optimistic that this pandemic will end in the near future," Zhang told CNA in a recent interview.


Although more than 6 million people have died from the disease worldwide, Zhang said science has helped human beings combat COVID-19 -- from virus surveillance to vaccine development.


Further progress in science means mankind will eventually prevail over COVID-19, he said, adding that the pandemic has also created opportunities for scientists across the world to collaborate, which is crucial to scientific development.


Zhang, U.S. geneticist Jennifer Doudna and French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the Tang Prize for creating and applying a technology for gene-editing, called CRISPR-Cas9, which enables scientists to remove or add genetic material at will.


CRISPR stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats." Part of the CRISPR system is a protein called Cas-9, which is able to seek out, cut and eventually degrade viral DNA in a specific way.


The genome editing platform not only promises to revolutionize biomedical research and disease treatment but has also contributed to COVID-19 management, he said.


Zhang said one example is a sensitive and specific nucleic detection technology his team developed using the platform before the COVID-19 pandemic.


The technology, called SHERLOCK (Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing), was originally used to detect DNA or RNA virus signatures for disease diagnoses via a paper strip, he said.


After the pandemic, Zhang said, his team adjusted the focus to concentrate on using SHERLOCK as a diagnostic tool sensitive to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which caused COVID-19.


SHERLOCK has proven useful for frontline medical workers, Zhang said, citing a Thai hospital adopting the technology to test its patients.


According to Zhang, his team is now further upgrading SHERLOCK, amid concerns that it is more complex than other point-of-care tests because it depends on RNA extraction and multiple liquid-handing steps which increase the risk of cross-contamination of samples.


Zhang said his lab is working with STOPCOVID, an interdisciplinary group of scientists devoted to new approaches for rapid point-of-care testing for COVID-19, to develop a simple test called STOP (SHERLOCK Testing in One Pot).


According to STOPCOVID scientists, the test can be performed at a single temperature in less than an hour and with minimal equipment.


The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law.


(By Ozzy Yin and Lee Hsin-Yin)