Nanoballs for testing and sanitizer production — RCPTM responses to Covid-19

Covid-19 is changing our lives, values, and habits. An overburdened health system in some countries, social isolation, and significant economic consequences for many companies and entrepreneurs are the harsh consequences of our ongoing confrontation with this invisible enemy from Wuhan. However, the pandemic has provoked several positive responses in the Czech Republic, including unprecedented social solidarity and help for vulnerable people; the dedication of front-line paramedics, police officers, and firefighters; and spontaneous cooperation among academic and industrial scientists working in different fields. The pandemic has created a clear need for new scientific priorities and rapid solutions, as well as new professional challenges. The Regional Centre of Advanced Technologies and Materials (RCPTM) is rising to these challenges.

Under the supervision of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry (IOCB), RCPTM scientists have engaged in the development of a protocol that will enable testing for SARS-Cov-2 without using commercial chemicals and test kits supplied from other countries, which are currently unavailable because demand greatly exceeds supply. “Without effective and rapid testing, it is impossible to implement the so-called smart quarantine. We would thus be reliant on draconian, large-scale restrictions that stifle the economy and hinder normal social life. The key barrier to increasing testing capacity, and an important step in the entire complex procedure, is the isolation of viral RNA, which is necessary for detecting the presence of the virus in samples taken from patients. In our lab, Pavel Šácha and his collaborators therefore developed an original method for isolating viral RNA, which was the bottleneck of the process. Magnetic nanoballs from RCPTM are crucial for their method,” said Jan Konvalinka from IOCB, who is managing the development of the single testing protocol.

Radek Zbořil’s team at RCPTM has capitalized on years of experience in research into magnetic nanomaterials for biomedical applications (e.g. Ulbrich K. et al. Chem. Rev. 2016; Sarigiannis Y. et al. Biomaterials 2016; Holá K. et al. Biotech. Adv. 2016) by developing a new type of magnetic iron oxide nanoparticle-based sorbent with a thin quartz shell within an incredibly short time. These balls bind nucleic acids (including viral RNA) very efficiently, which allows their repurification and separation from other mixture components using magnetic fields.

“We’re glad to participate in this ambitious project. In one synthetic cycle, we can prepare enough nanoparticles for around 100,000 tests. We are thus able to meet all of the Czech demand and even supply foreign customers without any problems. I appreciate the feedback from colleagues at IOCB and the Institute of Molecular and Translational Medicine (IMTM) who evaluated the effectiveness of the nanoparticles,” said Professor Zbořil, who praised the excellent work done to optimize the synthesis by his colleague Ivo Medřík.

Successful verification of the technology was carried out by the National Institute of Public Health in Prague. The developed magnetic sorbents are already being tested and used in the laboratories of hospitals such as in Motol and Na Bulovce, and in academic workplaces including CEITEC, Brno; BIOCEV, Prague; or IMTM, Olomouc. “It is currently being made available to all testing laboratories in the Czech Republic on a non-commercial basis, and a commercial partner is being actively sought to produce and deliver complete RNA extraction kits,” added Konvalinka, who appreciates the cooperation between the scientific workplaces.

Similarly, the national testing coordinator Marián Hajdúch, IMTM Director, highlighted the scientists’ joint efforts in the so-called smart quarantine project. “The coronavirus cannot be eradicated; it will continue to spread until herd immunity has been built up or a vaccine invented. Sufficient testing is crucial for designing the right solutions and keeping the spread of the virus under control. It’s great that at this time we can respond so quickly and use our own know- how. The enormous potential of scientific collaboration among major research infrastructures is being clearly demonstrated,” said Hajdúch.

At the same time, RCPTM scientists are trying to capitalize on their scientific know-how in the field of antimicrobial silver nanoparticles. They conducted pioneering studies that demonstrated the high antibacterial (Panáček A. et al. J. Phys. Chem. B 2006) and antifungal activity (Panáček A. et al. Biomaterials 2009) of silver nanoparticles. However, silver nanoparticles are also effective against a wide range of viruses, and are therefore increasingly being mentioned as a possible tool for long-term disinfection and virucidal surface treatment of filters or face masks, as well as plastic or metal surfaces. To facilitate such uses, RCPTM staff are working with multiple industrial partners to test patented technologies that may enable nanoparticles to be anchored to any surface using appropriate branched polymers with reducing functional groups. “We are currently discussing a licensing agreement with representatives of a company in Brno to use our technology,” said Jana Soukupová, the co-author of the European and American patent (J. Soukupová and R. Zboril, EP 3407715; US9505027B2).

In its battle against Covid-19, RCPTM has not only relied on its scientific expertise – it has also made great use of the efforts and commitment of its workers, including doctoral students. “It was the doctoral students who were among the first to respond to the lack of hand sanitizer by manufacturing it themselves. We initially took advantage of our own stocks and later drew on the help of colleagues from the Centre of the region Haná for Biotechnological and Agricultural Research,” says Michal Otyepka, RCPTM Deputy Director. One of the RCPTM labs turned into a disinfectant manufacturing facility as early as mid-March. The sanitizer, which is mixed in accordance with the World Health Organization’s recommendations, was subsequently given to organisations including Olomouc Charity and Klokánek, Hospice in Svatý Kopeček, Spa Slatinice, Children’s Home of Chance, nursing homes for the elderly and many other health or non-profit social centres. Shipments were also sent to health care workers in Litovel, which, along with another 20 nearby villages, was locked down due to the fast spread of coronavirus. RCPTM staff decided to share their experience of mixing the disinfectant with others. This resulted in the creation of a new website named COVID 19; how to outsmart the pandemic (, which provides important information on preventing the disease, especially hand hygiene. Other RCPTM workers are also assisting IMTM with the administration connected with testing. “I extend my sincere thanks for all the work that has been done to handle the crisis,” added Otyepka.

Everyone at RCPTM is now lending a helping hand. The Ph.D. student Lukáš Zdražil, for example, who has been preparing hand sanitizer in the lab for the past few weeks, is not behind on his scientific work either. “My typical day now is divided between preparing the disinfectant and working on testing our carbon dots for use in solar energy,” he said. His research on the development of so-called solar concentrators, along with new grants, facilities, and research projects at RCPTM is discussed in more detail elsewhere in this issue. Enjoy your reading.