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Loyola Professor Develops Saliva-Based COVID-19 Testing Program

Courtesy of Loyola University ChicagoEd Campbell, a professor at the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine, saved the day when he designed a COVID-19 testing system for his kids' school district.

Having a doctor for a dad sure comes in handy during a global pandemic. 

A professor at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine has developed a coronavirus testing program for his children’s school district in La Grange — a western Chicago suburb about 25 miles from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus.

Ed Campbell, who works in Stritch’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said students and teachers at the schools are being tested once a week using their saliva samples. Samples are collected either at school or by using a take-home kit, both of which involve students and teachers spitting into a small tube which is then sent for testing.

The test works by deactivating the saliva sample at a high temperature, which kills the virus in the tube so it’s no longer infectious.

“Essentially we boil it for ten minutes, or really close to boil it, and this kills the virus in the tube,” Campbell said. “But it also liberates the RNA that’s in the virus so that we can detect it.”

Campbell works in Stritch’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
Courtesy of Ed Campbell

Campbell said the test isn’t FDA approved or considered a diagnostic test. He instead compared it to a fever check by taking someone’s temperature.

“This is obviously a much more specific non-diagnostic test,” Campbell said. “But when someone tests positive … the nurse will reach out to them and say that there is a finding of potential clinical significance.”

Campbell said nurses don’t tell anyone they’re COVID-19 positive if coronavirus is detected in their saliva sample. Instead, the student or teacher is told to see a doctor and take a PCR test — which detects the virus’ genetic material and is often done with nasal or throat swabs.

So far, Campbell said, every time someone tested positive from their saliva sample, it’s been subsequently confirmed by a PCR test.

The results are also quick — samples are processed the same day they’re received, Campbell said. This means anyone who tests positive will know before school begins the next day.

Campbell said the test he developed was based on the efforts of David and Shelby O’Connor, professors and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and professors Nick Meyerson and Sara Sawyer at the University of Colorado.

Shelby O’Connor spoke with The Phoenix about her work on coronavirus saliva tests.

Shelby said she’s been working on saliva testing since July, although the project began around April and was supported through the National Institute of Health to develop rapid diagnostics for coronavirus testing.

Most of the work on saliva testing had been done prior to her joining, she said, and by July it was a matter of making the testing program mobile.

“We basically figured out how to take this entire saliva testing program and move it outside so we could deliver it to people in different settings, including doing things like training people like Ed [Campbell] to do this sort of test at his location in La Grange,” Shelby said.

Shelby said along with saliva testing being more comfortable than the nose-swabbing method, it also requires less sophisticated equipment than a PCR test.

“We can put everything in the back of a van, we can take our mobile van to a site and do everything we need to do there,” she said. “You’re going to find that really hard to do with a PCR test.”

Campbell said the testing program wouldn’t have been possible without help from his Loyola colleagues — who pitched in and provided equipment when he needed it.

Campbell (above) said he owes a lot of credit to the help of his Loyola colleagues.
Courtesy of Ed Campbell

“It’s safe to say that without them coming out of the woodwork to help me throw this together in a two-week period that it would not have worked,” Campbell said.

For example, he said, about one week before he was supposed to start testing in August, only two-thirds of his materials had come in. And he was panicked.

“I went into a faculty meeting in my department and I said, ‘Look, I’m trying to do this thing and I’m smoked,’” Campbell said. “I basically went around the department with like a roller, right? And I was collecting things like hot plates and pipette tips and pipettes. And people were just taking things right off their bench and putting it on my cart in a way that was pretty amazing.”

Toni Pak, the department chair of Loyola’s Cell and Molecular Physiology Department, even lent him a PCR machine, he said.

“Dr. Campbell is really kind of the hero of the story and if any credit goes to anyone else, it should go to my students who helped him [with the PCR machine] on the weekend,” Pak told The Phoenix.

Both Pak and Campbell said this kind of testing is something that can be easily implemented at other schools and universities, including Loyola.

Pak said New York University (NYU), where her daughter attends, already implemented a similar testing program this semester.

NYU’s mandatory testing program allows it to test the entire community every two weeks at minimum. Anyone who wishes to maintain access to the university’s buildings must be up-to-date on their testing requirements, otherwise their ID cards will be deactivated, according to the university’s website.

Campbell said the value of saliva-based testing is that it’s low-cost with fast results.

“No one has walked through the school doors the next day where we didn’t know the outcome of their saliva sample yesterday,” Campbell said.

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