Covid-19: Japanese biohackers develop Ninja qPCR for real-time testing

In Tokyo, independent biohacker Shingo Hisakawa is converting his NinjaPCR open source thermal cycler into a real-time DNA amplifier, which could test for, among other infectious agents, the coronavirus Covid-19. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a method used to isolate and replicate a specific sequence of DNA in order to analyze it in detail, and thus detect the presence of the virus in a very small DNA sample taken from a patient.

Shingo Hisakawa’s NinjaPCR. © Hisashin

Especially now that Japan’s largest cities are exploding with new cases, real-time testing—without the need for time-consuming post-processes required by a conventional thermal cycler (like the current NinjaPCR)—is all the more urgent. Another consideration is the cost: while commercial real-time PCR costs several thousand dollars, Shingo Hisakawa is aiming for a cost of around $300 for the new real-time kit Ninja qPCR.

According to the biohacker, the NinjaPCR is already close to this goal, as it is open sourced under a GPL v3 license (which means that any usage must also be open source), integrates a thermal simulation model for ultra-precise temperature control, and can be monitored through an iOS/Android smartphone via wifi without the need for an Internet connection.

Currently, the project has two teams: the engineer team, which includes Shingo, his wife Mariko and other friends in their neighborhood of Akihabara; and the bio team, led by French biochemist Joséphine Galipon at Keio University’s Institute of Advanced Life Sciences in Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan, with the collaboration of the Tokyo BioClub.

“Thanks to the event hosted at BioClub, many other biohackers have joined the Ninja qPCR project,” says Shingo. “Their current tasks are 1. make shopping list, 2. make manual for test, and 3. create sample tubes for the engineer team. By ordering custom DNA that’s equal to the unique part of the Covid-19 virus, we can develop this machine safely.”

Six years ago, U.S. company Chai launched the Chai Open qPCR, another open source real-time thermal cycler (“for research use only, not for use in diagnostic procedures”), which also inspired Ninja qPCR and now sells for $4500.

This April, the World Health Organization just approved the open source reagents kit Genesig Real-Time PCR Coronavirus (COVID-19) CE IVD by UK company Primerdesign, destined exclusively for medical professionals detecting the coronavirus Covid-19 via in vitro diagnosis in Europe.

More info on the Ninja qPCR project

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