A Global Challenges Research Fund-supported international collaboration, aiming to develop point-of-care low cost viral diagnostic (LCVD) assays, convened at Future Africa for a three-day workshop from 13-15 March 2019.Fifteen established and early-career applicants from South Africa and Ghana with academic, clinical medicine, medical laboratory and start-up biotech backgrounds were accepted into the workshop.

Recently, significant advances have been made in the use of cell-free synthetic biology as a safe, robust and low-cost tool for detecting biological compounds or nucleic acid sequences and activating molecular programmes to generate reporter signals. Complementing this, open-source and easy to use Arduino-based electronics are readily available to inventors for design testing in early diagnostic device prototypes, benefitting from a large online user community. The workshop therefore intended to train potential diagnostics device developers to test aspects of safe biological detection and signal readout using low-cost and open-source synthetic biology and Arduino tools, among others.

The workshop included eight theory-based and practical modules. Participants were exposed to practical training in cell-free expression technologies and basic Arduino-based open-source electronic programming using code-free XOD interfacing. Theory modules included identifying unmet needs, user-focused design goals, paper-based devices and integration, scaling up of diagnostics and diagnostics as an iterative cycle, presented by various members of the LCVD collaboration team and guest speakers (e.g. Mr Daniel Mak, KISCH IP). 

The participants will continue to share their experiences in diagnostic device prototype development on the online collaborative hub, Slack (slack.com), with the intention that they will continue their training as a team, begin to implement the skills gained and have the opportunity to work together at a follow-up workshop in early 2020. 

LCVD team members and workshop participants. From left to right: Dr Steven Hussey (LCVD team – UP/FABI), Dr Ntombenhle Gama (UP), Dr Nadia Storm (NICD) , Mr Carl Baumeister (MARTI Diagnostics), Ms Jaime Macdonald (NICD), Dr Essa Suleman (CSIR), Dr Nishi Prabdial-Sing (NICD), Ms Hloniphile Ruth Mthiyane (WITS), Dr André du Toit (UCT), Ms Kamogelo Sepotokele (UP/CSIR), Mr Akash Das (LCVD team - Cam), Dr Natasha Beeton-Kempen (TokaBio), Dr Michael Crone (LCVD team - ICL), Dr Samuel Asamoah Sakyi (KNUST, Ghana), Dr Lalitha Sundaram (LCVD team - Cam), Dr Charlie Gilbert (LCVD team - Cam), Mr Ikechukwu Okeke (MARTI Diagnostics), Dr Florette Treurnicht (NHLS), Dr Ansie Yssel (UP), Dr Fernando Guzman-Chavez (LCVD team – Cam), Dr Letrisha Padayachee (LCVD team – UP), Dr Jenny Molloy (LCVD team – Cam). In absentia: Prof. Jim Ajioka (LCVD team PI – Cam), Dr Kevin Land (LCVD team – CSIR), Ms Suzanne Smith (LCVD team – CSIR), Prof. Paul Freemont (LCVD team – ICL), Prof. Jim Haseloff (LCVD team – Cam), Prof. Ian Goodfellow (LCVD team – Cam), Mr Daniel Mak, KISCH IP. Cam, University of Cambridge; CSIR, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; FABI, Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute;  ICL, Imperial College London; KNUST, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology; NICD, National Institute for Communicable Diseases; NHLS, National Health Laboratory Service; UP, University of Pretoria; UCT, University of Cape Town; WITS, University of the Witwatersrand.

Expression of fluorescent proteins using cell-free expression (CFE) technology. Participants also used CFE to produce fragrant esters, implement biological logic gate systems and toehold switch-based regulatory systems in vitro.

Workshop participants learned how to use Arduino-based electronics and code-free XOD visual programming (www.biomaker.org) to test device prototype readout using low-cost open-source sensors.

Arduino-based training kits from the Biomaker initiative (www.biomaker.org) were used.