New Microsoft partnership aims to improve COVID-19 testing via tech that captures immune responses

Home-testing conducted by LabCorps will provide free data to health providers to help determine the best way to fight the global virus.

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to infect Americans –– at the rate of about 25,000 to 30,000 new cases each day –– efforts to improve testing for COVID-19 are ramping up. On Tuesday, Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies announced the launch of a new virtual clinical study, ImmuneRACE, which will recruit 1,000 people in select US cities to get safe, at-home testing. Participants are between the ages of 18 and 89 and must either currently have COVID-19, recovered from it, or have been exposed to it. The partnership aims to take the de-identified data, collected by LabCorps—which consists of blood samples and nose and throat swabs—and distribute it to those who can help improve testing. That includes public health officials, academics, and industries.

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At the moment, there are only two kinds of testing for COVID-19—PCR tests, which can reveal the virus through a throat or nose swab, and serology tests, which measure antibodies in the blood. ImmuneRACE is an attempt to offer a third kind of testing, which will examine alternative diagnostic testing for those with known exposures or symptoms. This kind of testing looks at those who are at-risk, and includes monitoring and surveillance in order to improve decisions about COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions.

"We've spent the past decade learning how the adaptive immune system naturally detects and treats all disease, and [can] apply our immune medicine platform specifically to COVID-19," Chad Robins, CEO and co-founder of Adaptive Biotechnologies, said in a press release. "We're hopeful that we can contribute important information that will become part of an immune scan to help reopen society."

The study will map out how T-cells, which fight infections as part of the immune system, respond to a range of diseases, and then look at how they respond to COVID-19.

"Immune response data may augment what we have been learning to date to help determine who is at greater risk of developing more severe symptoms and may help with future containment efforts," Peter Lee, corporate vice president, AI and Research, Microsoft, said in a press release.  "Anyone who has been affected by COVID-19 holds key information that can help contain and manage the virus."

The current experiments will build on a foundation this partnership has built to use machine learning to study a range of diseases. It will merge data from subjects in the current trials with information from global healthcare data, and can monitor and respond to input in real-time, harnessing Microsoft's machine learning and Azure cloud platform. 

"We aim to develop a blood test for the early and accurate detection of many diseases, translating the natural diagnostic capability of the immune system into the clinic," the press release stated. "In 2019, we confirmed clinical signals in two diseases, and established our first proof of concept in Lyme Disease."

The partnership hopes to present a clinical application to the FDA sometime this year.  

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