DU’s Spit Lab triples COVID-19 testing

When members of the DU community returned to campus at the start of winter quarter, they found their saliva was in demand. 

With the University requiring frequent coronavirus testing for students, faculty and any employees working on campus, it made sense to create a fast and relatively easy way to administer tests. Enter DU’s new Spit Lab, which houses a salivary testing program for COVID-19. The new program allows for faster and increased testing. 

In the works since summer 2020, the lab provides a cost-effective way to allow for a greater volume of testing, says Corinne Lengsfeld, senior vice provost for research and graduate education and one of the leaders on DU’s COVID Response Team. The goal was to have the lab ready for the winter months, when the prevalence of COVID-19 would be higher. 

Phillip Danielson, a professor of molecular biology in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, transformed his forensic lab into the coronavirus testing facility. Researchers began by examining samples using a method called “direct from saliva.” This involves placing the saliva sample directly into a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and results are known within hours.

Danielson moved to a different method when contaminants in real-world samples resulted in failures. The team used an extraction-based approach where saliva is run through an automated process that neutralizes the chemicals that attack the RNA in saliva. They were able to separate the “garbage” from the RNA in the samples. 

Finally, they compared their results against nasal swab tests from the DU Care Pod run by National Jewish Hospital. The results were a 96.7% sensitivity rate on positive tests and a 100% specificity rate on negative tests.

“It feels very good to have a method in hand that we know works,” Danielson says. The goal was to run 1,000 salivary tests per day, in addition to the 500 nasal tests performed daily by National Jewish.

“What this testing strategy does is gives us the ability to have control over our campus and bring down our positivity and maintain it being down no matter what is happening around us,” Lengsfeld says. “This prepares us for success regardless of what is happening in our surrounding communities.”

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