Hokkaido University’s Associate Professor Masaaki Kitajima uses wastewater-based technology to detect and control the dynamics of future disease outbreaks.
The spread and mutation of COVID-19 across the globe has raised questions amongst scientists about how future outbreaks could be managed.
Although the inhalation of aerosolised droplets and person-to-person contact are significant transmission routes of COVID-19, there is growing evidence to suggest that infections can be caused by the presence of viral RNA in the faeces of individuals and also in wastewater. Hokkaido University’s Associate Professor Masaaki Kitajima focuses on the benefits of particles found in wastewater to map and forecast future outbreaks.
The team at Hokkaido University works collaboratively with Shionogi & Co., a major Japanese pharmaceutical company, to develop innovative early warning systems for COVID-19 and future global disease outbreaks.
AdvanSentinel Inc. – a joint venture recently established by Shionogi and Shimadzu Corporation – is now a part of the existing collaboration between Hokkaido University and Shionogi.
Accelerating the use of wastewater-based epidemiology
Until the developments by Hokkaido University, wastewater was not a traditional method used to track variations in diseases. However, the university’s research shows that using wastewater to monitor disease has sufficient advantages over other methods.
Wastewater-based epidemiology is able to detect low levels of virus particles, along with identifying the presence of the virus when people are asymptomatic. This means it has an advantage over clinical diagnosis, which can only indicate the presence of the virus amongst symptomatic people. It is not common government practice to test asymptomatic individuals.
By monitoring viruses found in wastewater, the actual prevalence of diseases in the population can be tracked. Genetic variations of different diseases can also be tracked over time, meaning scientists can monitor the evolution of the virus over time and provide valuable information on the prevalence of variant viruses. This will help inform governments on measures to implement, such as lockdowns and vaccinations.
There is a huge stigma surrounding epidemiological tests because all data is collected based on personal information. Alternatively, wastewater-based testing can help researchers understand epidemiology without accessing personal information.
Implementing the technology on a large-scale
AdvanSentinel Inc., Hokkaido University’s industrial partner, uses a process known as the COPMAN (COagulation and Proteolysis method using MAgnetic beads for the detection of Nucleic acids in wastewater) method as a way to implement wastewater-based epidemiology on a large scale.
Despite the development of several SARS-CoV-2 detection methods, there have been obstacles to their social implementation, but COPMAN is compatible an automated analysis system that can analyse a large number of samples required for large-scale implementation.
The COPMAN method consists of three steps. Firstly, the concentration of viruses in wastewater using a coagulant. Next is RNA extraction and purification using magnetic beads, and lastly, a reverse transcription (RT)-preamplification-quantitative PCR (qPCR).
Due to its incompatibility with automation, the COPMAN method eliminates the centrifugation process as much as possible. It adopts a nucleic acid purification method using magnetic beads, which is more suitable for automation. This innovation makes wastewater-based epidemiology surveillance more valuable and accessible and is expected to accelerate the social implementation of wide-scale WBE.
AREAS OF EXPERTISE:
- COVID-19 and developing an early warning system for future pandemics;
- The rise of wastewater-based epidemiology;
- Collaborative working between academics and industry;
- The ability to detect low levels of the virus in wastewater; and
- Societal implementation of wastewater-based epidemiology.