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 The tip twirls around uncomfortably before it's withdrawn.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."
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.