© 2023 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

MSU Saliva Test Offers Non-Intrusive Scan For COVID-19

test kit
Stan Sochay
MSU is developing a saliva test kit to detect positive cases of COVID-19.

Michigan State University begins its fall semester next week under the shadow of COVID-19.  A team of researchers is working on a saliva test than can track the coronavirus from a group of people back to infected individuals. 

The standard COVID-19 nasal swab is a pain in the nose.  It’s uncomfortable, and can make you cough and sneeze.

Dr. Jack Lipton understands that.

He’s a professor of translational neuroscience at Michigan State University’s research site in Grand Rapids.  He figured there had to be a painless way to collect COVID samples. 

Turns out, there is.

“A couple of other laboratories were using saliva and they were getting good yield of virus from those samples,” says Lipton.

Lipton heads what he and his colleagues have dubbed “The Spartan Spit Team.”  They’re developing a test kit for analyzing saliva.  It’s a cardboard box with a tube to collect the sample. 

Unlike an individual swab test, saliva collection can test a pool of donors.  Samples are analyzed using digital droplet polyermase chain reaction (PCR) machines.

First, though, saliva must be broken down into a thinner form.  There’s an enzyme that breaks it down naturally, but it’s hard to come by. 

So the team has come up with a mechanical solution to make the spit less gooey: beads. 

“They’re made out of ceramic and they're a three-millimeter bead,” says research associate Allyson Cole-Strauss.  “We have to put four of these into every single one of those sample collection tubes.”

Saliva donors are placed into two different pools of eight to 12 people.  If one pool turns up positive, then each person must be tested individually.  But if two pools light up, that intersection can be traced to a single individual.

graph table
Credit Courtesy / MSU Dept. of Translational Neuroscience
MSU Dept. of Translational Neuroscience
This graph depicts 96 saliva samples. If two test pools intersect at a common point, it may indicate a positive case of COVID-19.

However, even if someone tests positive with a saliva kit, there’s still one more step to make sure. 

“It’s a screening test,” says Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.  “Because of the less specificity and sensitivity of the test, then typically what you’ll see is somebody go on and get a confirmatory test after that.”

Vail says the county is working with MSU to develop a procedure for conducting those confirmatory tests.

If we wait for people to get symptoms, we are going to be way too late by the time we find them. This gives us a chance to get in there and act quickly.

Lipton’s team plans to run up to 10,000 samples a week.  He says he doesn’t expect the university’s decision to move undergraduate courses online to alter that projection. 

The saliva test is voluntary, so Lipton is appealing to the MSU community’s social conscience to make it a success.  He’s urging people to return their kits the day they produce their sample.  Lipton says cooperation is vital in a situation in which many people may be asymptomatic.

“If we wait for people to get symptoms, we’re going to be way too late by the time we find them,” Lipton says.  “So, this gives us a chance to get in there and act quickly.”

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
Related Content
A special thanks to those who helped us unlock $50,000 this past Giving Tuesday. If you haven't supported the news reporting of this station yet, now is the best time to give. Support your favorite community public station today.