U of C researchers developing easier, more sensitive COVID test — and all you need to do is spit

CHICAGO — A little spit goes a long way toward finding COVID-19. Cancer researchers at the University of Chicago switched gears in the pandemic, developing a virus test they say works better than a nasal swab test and it’s all thanks to the droplets.

For 20 years Evgeny Izumchenko has worked as a cancer biologist in translational research and “trying to understand how pre-malignancy progresses to cancer,” he said.

He does that by focusing on molecular signatures that predict cancer. And he finds them through liquid biopsies.

“You can use bodily fluids to detect mutations associated with cancer,” he said. “It’s right now used in research to improve detection. … As a tumor grows, it sheds some of its cells into the bloodstream. Some of the tumor cells which originated from the tumor can be found in the patient’s bloodstream and in the patient’s blood and the saliva.”

The researchers not only detect cancer through blood and saliva samples, but in the case of head and neck cancers, they can find the virus that causes the cancer.

“We’re using saliva to detect HPV in head and neck cancer patients,” Izumchenko said. “And we use the same technique to detect rare mutations in cancer patients.”

But when the pandemic hit, the cancer biology team at University of Chicago turned their sights on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We thought we have pretty much everything in hand in terms of the people to translate what we do to COVID,” Izumchenko said. “What we did (was) we combined the saliva test with a very sensitive technique called droplet digital PCR.”

Combining a special solution with saliva, thousands of tiny droplets are visible.

“By amplifying the signal in every droplet and then counting them, you can, as end result, count with very precise, quantitative complete number of the viral particles in the samples you are testing,” Izumchenko said.  “Which is extremely hard to do with the clinical tests we use now. … We are using a different technique to detect the virus and a different technique to collect the samples. We use very specific solutions that we think, on one hand, decrease virulence of the virus when you collect the virus.”

That reduces risk to those reading the tests. And the samples are easier to collect for testing.

“I know it sounds funny, but everybody knows how to spit, even kids if you need to test kids,” Izumchenko said.  

Whether it’s kids, cancer patients or those infected with COVID-19, these researchers say their process helps people.

“We are here for the benefit of the patients. Either as cancer researchers or creating new detection tools for COVID, the endpoint is to find a way to make life easy for the patient,” Izumchenko said.  

The tests will now be available to students at the University of Illinois who will be tested before returning to class in the fall.