Research Highlights

From Diagnosis to Treatment, POSTECH Combats COVID-19 with Science and Technology

2020-04-07 557


The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has become a pandemic with rapidly increasing number of confirmed patients worldwide. As of March 29th, the total numbers of confirmed cases and deaths in the world are over 650,000 and 30,000 respectively. In meanwhile, the researchers of POSTECH bring efforts to overcome this COVID-19 pandemic.

◆ Prof. Seung Key Chang of Department of Life Sciences and his research team introduces a quick and precise diagnostic testing of the novel coronavirus that shortens the testing time from 6 hours to 15 minutes.

The most devastating pandemic in history is the Black Death which brought deaths to one third of the entire European population in the medieval time. Other devastating past pandemics include Spanish flu in 1918, Asian flu in 1957, Hong Kong flu in 1968, and influenza A (H1N1), known as swine flu, in 2009. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic in 11 years since the swine flu.

To prevent spread of infections in the beginning of the outbreak, it is crucial to identify infected people through quick diagnosis. Currently, there are three types of diagnostic tests developed for viral infections and they are molecular assays, immunoassays, and virus cultivation. The diagnostic testing used for viral infections in Korea is molecular assays which has high sensitivity. However, it requires samples to be sent to professional institutions for analysis and takes about six hours to bring results. It is also comparatively expensive.

The virus cultivation takes even longer to analyze samples from two to four weeks and it is inappropriate for massive viral infection tests such as COVID-19. Diagnostic tests using immunoassays have not been developed yet. In other words, there is no real-time test developed at the moment.

In the meantime, the technology, which can bring the speed of diagnostic test faster, is introduced. Prof. Seung Key Chang and his research team from POSTECH developed a diagnostic test with Apatmer Science Inc. that can bring results in 15 minutes on site to help confirm whether the samples have viral infections or not by using a molecular capture called ‘aptamer.’

An aptamer is a kind of a molecular capture and is able to bind to various targets from a low molecular weight compound to macromolecules like proteins as it has high specificity and affinity. A pair of aptamers are bound to different parts of the targeted proteins, HA. By using these aptamers, they successfully developed a diagnostic kit, which changes colors like a pregnancy test kit, indicating the infection of virus. When this new diagnostic test is used, it can not only be applied to any new emerging viral infections such as COVID-19 but can also shorten the time of diagnosis from six hours to 15 minutes.

Furthermore, newly generated aptamers can bind to the membrane of proteins and can prevent healthy cells from being infected. It is anticipated that this can be used in developing medicines. The research team expedites the research with a goal to establish a platform that can promptly develop diagnosis and treatment of a new emerging virus such as COVID-19, SARS, and MERS.

◆ Prof. Inhwan Hwang and his research fellows of Department of Life Sciences discover a method for producing COVID-19 antigens in plants.

To develop COVID-19 vaccines and make a quick diagnosis, a method for producing viral antigens in plants are introduced, replacing the existing process of extracting antigenic proteins in virus. The research team led by Prof. Inhwan Hwang of POSTECH and Bioapp Inc., (Eun-Ju Sohn, CEO) which holds a technology for green vaccines, successfully established a system that can mass produce COVID-19 antigens promptly.

To develop and produce vaccines and diagnosis kits, antigenic proteins of the virus are needed. To extract antigenic proteins, it is necessary to cultivate and multiply virus, but there are many environmental limitations and risk of infections.

Antigens of COVID-19 are made of glycoproteins. Considering this property and using a green vaccine platform, it is possible to develop a vaccine and a diagnosis kit with higher degree of accuracy than the existing technologies using bacteria. Especially, this technique can mass produce only antigenic proteins of the virus through the plant-based expression system rapidly.

The research team plans to provide high quality of antigens to all international and domestic companies producing diagnosis kits that want to cooperate with them. They also put most of their efforts in developing a green vaccine for COVID-19. They are already testing the antigens produced in plants with animals by using a laboratory mouse. Also, they are in the process of forming a consortium to develop a green vaccine for COVID-19 with the institutions in academia, research, and industry and under the development of medicines for COVID-19.

◆ Prof. Seung-Woo Lee and Prof. Young-Chul Sung of Division of Integrative Biosciences and Biotechnology accelerate ‘GX-19’ vaccine development to cease COVID-19.

Experts foresee that COVID-19 pandemic will last long because it is extremely contagious which makes it difficult to cease or combat the virus in a short period of time. Some others forecast that the pandemic will end either when more than 60% of the entire population of the world are infected and have developed self-immunity or when a very efficacious vaccine is introduced.

For this reason, domestic and international efforts to develop vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 are actively ongoing. In Korea, POSTECH first formed an academia-industry-research consortium with Genexine, KAIST, International Vaccine Institute, Binex, and GenNBio to develop a DNA vaccine called ‘GX-19’ to prevent COVID-19.

The DNA vaccine, GX-19, is a vaccine that can induce an immune response by injecting genes into a human body to produce viral antigens. Compared to the existing vaccines that make antibodies against the virus by injecting the weakened toxic virus, it is comparatively safe and takes a shorter time to develop.

For instance, a recombinant DNA is designed to produce the viral membrane proteins of COVID-19. When it is injected into a body, the body acknowledges it as a virus and triggers immune response which makes antibodies. Once these antibodies are made, they can protect the body from the infection of COVID-19.

The consortium will be led by Genexine, where Prof. Young Chul Sung of POSTECH is headed because it has a DNA vaccine-based technology and know-hows. The consortium will cooperate in developing the vaccine to prevent COVID-19 based on each field of expertise such as virus and immunology and production of biomedicine.

In meanwhile, POSTECH is planning to execute immunoassay of GX-19 on a mouse model led by Prof. Seung-Woo Lee, who is the prominent expert in the field of cellular immunology research of animal models.

The consortium is planning to submit an investigational new drug (IND) application to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety in early June and it can be under clinical trials in July when it is approved.

◆ The research team led by Prof. Juhong Park of Creative IT Engineering operates a ‘voluntary self-reporting COVID symptoms map’

Even if treatment for COVID-19 is developed, a way to stop this pandemic is to prevent further infections in the community. This does not limit to one region or a country but rather it requires the cooperation and participation of the entire world to overcome this global crisis.

In Korea, travel paths of the confirmed patients of the virus are thoroughly disclosed to the public, however, it is done differently in other countries. In most of the places, only the number of confirmed cases is publicly disclosed and their travel paths remain still unknown to the public. So, it is difficult to figure out the route of virus transmission. People, who might have visited the same places and routes of the confirmed patients, can never know. Also, their diagnosis and travel route verification take some time and the information is made public only after they test positive for the virus. Therefore, there may be a small discrepancy in real-time route of infection.

A research team led by Professor Juhong Park operates “COVID: Share to Survive,” a self-travel log map project, which involves anonymous participation from suspected and confirmed patients of COVID-19, to solve such discrepancy of the information and share with the globe.

This worldwide project ( was initiated to real-time monitor the infection to prevent spread of the disease. People, who have suspicious symptoms or are tested positive for COVID-19, can voluntarily disclose his or her symptoms and path of travel on the map anonymously.

“According to the Korean Medical Association, when infected patients are not accurately acknowledged that they are infected, it is highly infectious and many of mass infections occur and spread during this period,” Prof. Park explained on the website. He also added, “The official travel path of confirmed patients takes a lot of time and efforts in preparation and delivery of the information. In many cases, it is announced after the places are quarantined and that is not effective in preventing infection of the virus.”

He further commented, “We will suggest solutions to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by voluntarily sharing the information on places and locations with high risks of infections. Even if you are not a confirmed patient of COVID-19 but have minor symptoms, we ask you to share the locations to be aware on our website.”

“This (operation of the website) might cause unintended events so, we do not collect any kind of personal information that can reveal identity of users. We expect this project – based on the good will of the participants, and respect and trust of each other – will help us overcome this time of crisis.”

The project is translated and released in nine languages, including Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese and Italian. The location information is designed to be displayed in real time and disappear when the virus reaches its half-life (7 days). Countries in Africa, where devastated by the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, have asked for support and Prof. Park and his team are working to localize the map for these countries to use.

With this data, the team plans to research whether anonymously shared information can actually lead to prevention of the infection and to develop artificial intelligence technology that can recognize data errors.

On the same day the project was launched, Yuval Harari wrote a contribution in the Financial Times, “The World After the Coronavirus.” In the article, he argued that cooperation of self-motivated and informed citizens is the most effective and powerful countermeasure to overcome this time of crisis instead of centralized monitoring and harsh punishments by the government.

Harari also wrote that people wash their hands with soap because they understand the fact that it removes the virus and not because they are afraid of punishment by the police. In the same notion, Prof. Park hopes that this project would help people understand the fact that no sign of symptoms and suspicious carriers can also spread the infection and people would use this map often as they wash their hands with soap every day.

The founding philosophy of POSTECH is “to contribute to the nation and humanity by conducting in-depth science and engineering research on the profound theories and wide range of applications essential to the advancement of Korea and the world.” We hope that the research conducted at POSTECH would bring fruitful findings to make the world a better place for all.