PCR testing inventor speaks to WGN amid COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 Pandemic
Data pix.

CHICAGO — With so much focus on the urgent need for more widespread COVID-19 testing, we take a look back at how the capability came to be.

WGN’s Dina Bair has more on the science behind the test in high demand and how the idea was born.

The technology is called PCR. You’ve likely heard the acronym tossed around in the last several weeks. It allows scientists to detect the presence of viruses in humans. WGN spoke with one of the inventors, who explained how the technology changed global health long before it became a critical factor in the current pandemic. 

It was 1983 and researchers in northern California were on to something – an idea conceived by this man, Kary Mullis, a scientist and surfer, who admittedly dabbled in psychedelic drugs. Mullis, who passed away in August, shared his idea with his employer at the time, Cetus Corporation. But it took a team to bring PCR’s potential to life. We tracked one of the members down.

Dr. Henry Erlich is now a senior scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. He spoke with us from his home in California.

“It’s very gratifying to read that these tests which are so crucial in tracking and trying to mitigate this pandemic use a technology my colleagues and I developed over 30 years ago it’s very gratifying,” he said.

Unlike so many biomedical breakthroughs that come to fruition only to be outdated within a few years, polymerase chain reaction — or PCR — has had a long shelf life. The technology has been used in DNA analysis, genetic disease research and forensics. and today, all those swabs gathered at hospitals, health departments and pop up tents will ultimately run through the PDC process.

“What PCR does is it targets a specific region and then in test tube it synthesizes millions of copies of that particular region so you can analyze it,” he said.

Once the DNA has been replicated millions of times, lab technicians use special fluorescent probes to seek out the covid-19 viral sequence – if it’s present, a positive result is rendered. if they don’t see the sequence, it’s a negative result. PCR tests specific for COVID-19 are possible because the viral sequence was shared globally via a public database.

“Trying to think back to that time i think we knew we were dev something very important and it could have a major impact,” Erlich said.

Today, 35 years after he spent countless days and nights in the lab testing the idea that instantly changed global health, Erlich says the long wait for testing shouldn’t be.

“It is a shame that as a country we didn’t commit to testing much sooner. My hope is that in partnership between the public sector and private sector and academic labs and commercial labs we can increase the rate at which these absolutely critical tests are being performed,” he said.

Erlich’s PCR research helped overturn a wrongful conviction in one of the first cases to use DNA testing in the courtroom. PCR played a critical role in the HIV epidemic, helping scientists measure viral load in patients and test the effectiveness of potential new treatments.

Kary Mullis, who claimed he came up with the concept while driving, received a $10,000 bonus from Cetus Corp. for his idea — the rights to the technology were ultimately sold for millions.

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