Saliva Testing Offers Easier and Earlier Detection of COVID-19
The patient tilts back her head and winces as the long swab stick pushes six inches up her nose. The tip twirls around uncomfortably before it's withdrawn.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases."
A gloved and gowned healthcare worker wearing a face shield and mask tells the patient that she will learn whether she is positive for COVID-19 as soon as the lab can process her test.
This is the typical unpleasant scenario for getting a coronavirus test. But times are rapidly changing: Today, for the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared one company to sell saliva collection kits for individuals to use at home.
Scientists at the startup venture, RUCDR Infinite Biologics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, say that saliva testing offers an easier, more useful alternative to the standard nasal swab.
"Our saliva test can detect the virus in asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases," said Dr. Andrew Brooks, chief operating officer at RUCDR.
Another venture, Darwin BioSciences in Colorado, has separately developed an innovative method of testing saliva for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Saliva testing can allow earlier detection to identify people who may not know they are contagious, say scientists at both companies. In addition, because patients spit into a tube or cup, saliva testing is safer for healthcare workers than taking swabs. This frees up scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) for use elsewhere. Nasal swabs themselves have been in scarce supply.
Saliva testing, if it becomes widespread, potentially could mean opening society sooner. The more ubiquitous testing becomes across the population, experts say, the more feasible it becomes for public health officials to trace and isolate contacts, especially of asymptomatic cases. Testing early and often will be essential to containing emerging hot spots before a vast outbreak can take root.
Darwin Biosceiences is preparing to seek an FDA Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) this month for its patented "CoVScreen" testing system, which potentially could be available to labs nationally by mid-summer.
Meanwhile, Infinite Biologics will now begin selling kits to consumers for home collection, upon order by a physician. The FDA said that the company's saliva test was as accurate as the nasal swab method used by health care professionals. An FDA summary documenting the company's data reported: "There was 100% positive and negative agreement between the results obtained from testing of saliva and those obtained from nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs."
The greatest scientific advantage, said Dr. Brooks, is that nasal and oral swabs only collect the surface area where the swab goes, which may not be the place with most viral load. In contrast, the virus occurs throughout a saliva sample, so the test is more trustworthy.
The lab at Rutgers can process 20,000 tests a day, with a 48-hour turnaround. They have 75,000 tests ready to ship now.
The Leap: Detecting Sickness Before You Feel It
"We wanted to create a device that could detect infections before symptoms appeared," explained Nicholas Meyerson, co-founder and CEO of Darwin.
For more than 300 years, he said, "the thermometer was the gold standard for detecting disease because we thought the first sign of illness was a fever. This COVID-19 pandemic has proven that not all pathogens cause a fever. You can be highly contagious without knowing it."
"The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
Therefore, Meyerson and co-founder Sara Sawyer from the University of Colorado began to identify RNA biomarkers that can sense when a pathogen first enters a molecule and "sets off alarms." They focused on the nucleic acids concentrated in saliva as the best and easiest place to collect samples for testing.
"The isothermal reaction in saliva takes place at body or room temperature," he said, "so there's no need for complicated testing machinery. The chemical reaction can be read out on a paper strip, like a pregnancy test -- two stripes if you're sick, and one stripe if you're okay."
Before the pandemic, limited but successful human trials were already underway at CU in Boulder and at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus east of Denver. "This was our proof of concept," he said.
Darwin was founded in March and has secured enough venture capital to concentrate protype development on detecting the virus causing COVID-19. So far, said Meyerson, "Everything works."
A small double-blind test of 30 samples at CU produced 100 percent accuracy. "I'm not sure if that will hold true as we go into clinical trials," he said, "but I'm confident we will satisfy all the requirements for at least 95 percent clinical validation."
The specific "CoVStick" test strips will roll out soon, he said: "We hope before the second wave of the pandemic hits."
The broader saliva test-strip product from Darwin, "SickStick," is still one to two years away from deployment by the military and introduction into the consumer drugstore market for home use, said Meyerson. It will affordably and quickly detect a range of viral and bacterial infections.
An illustration of the "CoVStick."
A Potential Game Changer
Society needs widespread testing daily, said George Church, founding core faculty of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Speaking at an online SynBioBeta webinar in April, he urged developing stockpiles of testing kits for home use.
As for any potential of false positives, Church said a much bigger risk is not having enough tests.
"Saliva testing is going to speed up the timeline for opening society a lot," said Meyerson. "People need to self-collect samples at home. A lot more people are going to be willing to spit into a tube than to push a swab six inches up their own nose."
Brooks, of Rutgers, addressed the big picture. "It's critical that we open society as soon as possible to minimize the economic impact of the pandemic. Testing is the surest and safest path. The question is whether we can scale up fast enough to meet the need. I believe saliva testing can help."
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”