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ASU develops state’s first saliva-based COVID-19 test

May 26, 2020

Simplicity of new test kits make supply chain easier to maintain, but could also help bring the cost of testing down

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

In an effort to make COVID-19 diagnostic testing easier and more readily available to Arizonans, researchers at Arizona State University have developed the state’s first saliva-based test.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer

Joshual LaBaer

“This new saliva-based test will be a real game-changer for those individuals who want to know whether or not they have an active COVID-19 infection,” said ASU Biodesign Institute Executive Director Joshua LaBaer, who leads ASU COVID-19 research efforts. “As we return to the workplace, schools and other daily activities, testing early and often is going to be the best way to help us prevent the spread of COVID-19.” 

Diagnostic tests detect an active COVID-19 infection by measuring the amount of virus present in the body. Because it can take as long as eight to nine days for an individual to develop symptoms after infection, a diagnostic test is the only test that can accurately detect an early infection. But individuals with early infections can still spread the virus.

The saliva diagnostic test starts with a collection kit that is as simple as spitting into a screw-top tube through a straw, making collections possible at drive-thru sites, doctors' offices, the workplace, and even at home. This will not only make the supply chain of test kits easier to maintain, but could also help bring the cost of testing down. 

“One of the bottlenecks with diagnostic testing has been the ability to quickly obtain samples,” LaBaer said. “Even with a highly-trained medical staff, medical providers have been limited to an average of 100 people with the nasopharyngeal (NP) swab collection in a four-hour window of drive-thru testing. The goal of the saliva tests was to overcome these obstacles.” 

For the past couple of weeks, ASU’s Biodesign Institute has been pilot testing the saliva-based testing with its first responder partnership network. This was performed alongside nasal swab collections samples to validate, as well as reconfigure its high-throughput robotic instruments, which currently have enough capacity to perform 1,200 diagnostic tests per day.

“From those results, we found that the saliva-based tests were just as good, if not even better, as those collected from NP swabs,” LaBaer said.

LaBaer points out that saliva tests offer several benefits over the NP swab tests while providing the same accuracy and sensitivity, including:

• Accuracy: The Biodesign saliva test uses the same diagnostic qPCR assay as the NP swab tests and are 100% accurate if there is any detectable amount of virus present in the sample. Research shows that saliva tests are as just as sensitive as NP swabs for detecting SARS-CoV-2 infections. One study suggests that saliva tests may offer even greater sensitivity.

• Safety: NP swab tests pose a risk to health care workers because they can make people sneeze or cough. Saliva tests can be self-administered and require minimal interaction with test site staff.

• Less invasive: NP swab tests can be invasive and uncomfortable, reducing compliance for repeat testing. Saliva tests are minimally invasive and thus easier to gather a sample from participants.

• Less PPE: NP swab kits and the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to administer them are in short supply. Saliva tests require less PPE during sample acquisition.

• Less labor intensive: Saliva tests eliminate the need for swab kits, reduce the amount of PPE required, and reduce the amount of staffing needed at COVID-19 sample collection sites.

ASU’s Biodesign Institute will pivot its current diagnostic testing of first responders to switch its entire NP swab collection protocols for the new saliva-based kits. The Biodesign Institute has also applied for FDA Emergency Use Authorization for the test and will make its protocols readily available for other commercial and academic partners so they can adapt their instruments to perform saliva-testing.

“The goal is to rapidly increase statewide diagnostic testing to continue to protect first responders, get more Arizonans back to work, and students back to school again this fall,” LaBaer said. “Ultimately, we are going to need to continue the testing blitz underway and quickly ‘test, trace and isolate’ individuals to get society back up and running.”

Top photo: Diagnostic tests, like the ones performed at the ASU Biodesign Institute's Clinical Testing Lab, detect an active COVID-19 infection by measuring the amount of virus present in the body. Photo courtesy ASU.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Cancer gets a 'bad' rap

Cell meets song when rap musician and cancer scientist connect to create new music video

May 26, 2020

When it comes to helping understand cancer, Athena Aktipis wants to get her point across — not just to other researchers, but to anyone who will listen.

A cancer researcher at Arizona State University, Aktipis is also co-founder of the Arizona Cancer Evolution Center (ACE) at ASU, launched in 2018 with a grant of $8.5 million from the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute. ACE is one of 13 international hubs for helping researchers understand cancer through the lenses of evolution and ecology.  Athena Aktipis is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University and director of ASU’s Cooperation and Conflict Lab. Professor Aktipis studies cooperation across systems from human sharing to cancer. Download Full Image

Aktipis is also associate faculty at ASU’s Biodesign Institute  and an associate professor of psychology. As scientific director of ASU’s Interdisciplinary Cooperation Initiative, Aktipis' research focuses on how evolution shapes cooperation and conflict at the level of genes, cells, groups and whole societies.

But Aktipis doesn’t leave science at the laboratory door — or in the halls of academia.

“I see science itself as a creative expedition,” she said. “We can’t make progress in science without expanding our minds and looking at things from different perspectives. Science and artists have a lot in common — we all are trying to understand and make sense of the world and then share that with others.” Aktipis is also the host and producer of the science and humor podcast “Zombified.” 

One creative collaboration resulted in the creation of a new rap video, “Revenge of the Somatic.” Aktipis worked with internationally known rap music artist Baba Brinkman to tell the story of how cancer connects to evolution. Brinkman released the song “Revenge of the Somatic” on his 2015 album, “The Rap Guide to Medicine.”

The recent publication of Aktipis’ book, “The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer,” presented a new opportunity for Aktipis to meld her interests with Brinkman’s talents. Working with animator Dave Anderson, they brought to life the world of a cell that rebels against the multicellular body, transforming into a cancer cell and then growing and dividing as the cellular rebellion grows.  

Video courtesy Baba Brinkman. Note: Some of the lyrics are mature in nature.

“As a middle-class white Canadian, I’ve always been a fan of politically radical rap music but never really had the kind of firsthand experience with oppression that the artists articulate in their lyrics,” Brinkman said. “So when Athena reached out and told me about cancer as a form of cellular rebellion, my first thought was ‘This calls for some rebel music!’”

Working with veteran U.K. producer Mr. Simmonds, Brinkman crafted a “freedom song” with a twist, making the protagonist a cancer cell yearning for the freedom of its wild ancestors who didn’t have to conform to the oppressive “corporate system” of the multicellular body.

Baba Brinkman is a New York-based rap artist and award-winning playwright, originally from Vancouver, Canada.

“I can honestly say that Baba's creative way of presenting the challenges of cancer through the eyes of a cancer cell affected how I thought about cancer as I worked on subsequent research papers and my book,” Aktipis said. “This is a brilliant case of science influencing the arts, as well as vice versa.”

According to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer, “Baba Brinkman's song about cancer is blisteringly clever, summing up complex biological concepts in irresistible rhymes.”

“Revenge of the Somatic”

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Listen to Brinkman’s "Rap Guide to Medicine"

Written by Dianne Price