Coexistence in the Covid Lab


Cambridge, Mass. — Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a silver lining is that researchers from diverse cultural backgrounds are coming together to work on the response — as Jewish-American Jonathan Gootenberg and Palestinian-American Omar Abudayyeh can attest.

Gootenberg and Abudayyeh both work at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are collaborating with the Broad Institute-based laboratory of MIT neuroscience professor Feng Zhang, which released a protocol of an at-home coronavirus test on May 8.

“I think it speaks to one of the many ways science can transcend cultural boundaries,” Gootenberg said in a Zoom call with members of the Zhang lab and The Times of åIsrael.

The duo, who both grew up in the United States, have worked together very closely over the last five years. Abudayyeh credited some of their productivity to their diverse backgrounds.

Their achievements include helping develop a viral detection technique called SHERLOCK, or specific high-sensitivity enzymatic reporter unlocking. Using SHERLOCK, they worked with members of the Zhang lab on the test, which they compare to a pregnancy test. It can use either a nasal swab or saliva sample in detecting whether a person has the coronavirus.

“Our main goal is to simplify as much as possible for point-of-care, at-home testing,” Abudayyeh said.

The lab began working on a test as early as December or January, according to one of its members, Julia Joung. They released a protocol of their first version on Feb. 14. Since then, they have worked on a second version, Joung said.

The Zhang lab test, called STOPCovid, has not been peer reviewed yet and does not have FDA approval. The team’s earlier protocol, which has been licensed by Sherlock Biosciences, recently received emergency-use FDA authorization. The team is actively developing STOPCovid further and validating clinical samples now, according to an MIT spokesperson.

Abudayyeh cited a recommendation of 500,000 to a million tests per day before society and work can reopen. In six to eight weeks, the U.S. has only tested seven million people.

“We have a long way to go to meet the capacity,” he said. “It requires new approaches, new technologies, not relying on central labs.”

Gootenberg said, “All around the world, you have people coming together, science coming together; there’s much more collaboration.”

The Times of Israel