COVID-19 test results before walking into work each morning? ISU researchers are working on it.

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Getting COVID-19 test results in 20 minutes using affordable and accessible technology is the goal some Iowa State University researchers are working toward, and if successful, the technology and others like it could not only help contain the pandemic, but more quickly identify and help mitigate all sorts of diseases.

COVID-19 is neither the first nor likely the last pandemic. Just since January, the World Health Organization has been monitoring individual cases or outbreaks of influenza variants in Brazil and Wisconsin, cholera in Togo, MERS — another disease caused by a coronavirus — in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea.

More:'This has to be the moment' to invest in coronavirus vaccines and treatments against future pandemics, experts warn

If something like the rapid testing technology being developed at ISU is viable and had been widely available in January 2020 ahead of the current pandemic, a lot of people might have had a very different year than the one they got. 

“It really could have been a way to keep society running," Jonathan Claussen said — people possibly not needing to quarantine for a full 14 days because of being cleared sooner by a test; hospitals being able to release patients sooner; passengers being tested immediately before they boarded airplanes; food processing workers and teachers being tested to avoid extended shutdowns at factories and schools.

Two ISU professors researching rapid saliva COVID-19 tests

Claussen is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at ISU and the chief scientific officer of NanoSpy Inc., a biosensor startup based at the Iowa State University Research Park.

More:Another 32 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Story County; no new deaths reported

He and Carmen Gomes — a fellow associate professor of mechanical engineering who is NanoSpy's chief research officer — are leading research at ISU using federally-funded grants to develop graphene-based rapid saliva tests for COVID-19.

Graphene is a carbon-based material known for its "strength, electrical conductivity, flexibility and biocompatibility," according to a news release from ISU.

More:Some Iowa State University students upset by timing of mass email on 3D-printed guns

Claussen and Gomes are using more than $900,000 in grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health to not only make working prototypes for rapid saliva tests, but also a methodology to mass manufacture the tests using common industrial printing techniques.

University of Illinois Springfield student Yamani Shareef, left, gives a saliva sample to Anthony Boyd with UIS' Student Affairs, to be tested for COVID-19 on Aug. 17, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. Researchers at Iowa State University are working toward COVID-19 tests that would give results in 20 minutes, with hopes for other future applications as well.

Saliva testing for COVID-19 is not new, and researchers at universities all over the country including Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Illinois and Yale University were all in the news in March related to their progress on developing quicker or otherwise improved saliva tests for the disease.

Claussen and Gomes are themselves working with researchers from Clemson University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Florida, in addition to other researchers and doctoral students at ISU. 

More:Iowa Poll: Over half favor legalizing recreational pot; over three-fourths favor expanding medical marijuana

Claussen said what would set ISU's graphene-based test apart from others is its 20 minute turnaround time for results, ease of use and low cost — probably less than $10 per test.

The hope is to have something that could — with just a small sample of saliva and people with a few minutes of training who do not necessarily have to be medical professionals — easily be used to do tests at home or work.

More:Some Ames activists want immediate action on SROs, but district not yet finished looking at the issue

Claussen said, "That could really open up new avenues of opportunities where you could reopen societies. Perhaps in a food processing facility, workers could maybe be tested before they even come in every morning.”

Success could change societies' abilities to mitigate threat of COVID-19

Graphene has a lot of surface area to increase its detection sensitivity for tests. A bio-recognition agent on the sensor uses antibodies that bind to a protein on the surface of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to identify it — instead of using genetic material to identify the virus like the PCR tests that analyze nasal swabs do.

Mutations to that protein on the coronavirus are what distinguishes some of the virus variants that have emerged around the world.

Claussen was not sure if ISU's test would be able to immediately detect all of those virus variants. "We’re hopeful that it will. If not, we need to make or purchase a different antibody for different variants, and if that were the case, we could potentially have a variety of antibodies bound to our sensor’s surface that can detect multiple variants,” or they could make variant-specific tests.

He expected that the spread of variants will mean a need for COVID-19 testing for years to come — even once most people are vaccinated. 

More:Health officials say the coronavirus will likely become endemic in the next several years. What does that mean?

Claussen added that "we’re really confident that we can be able to make a sensitive sensor, and that we can produce it. We have good fabrication protocols in line already to make these. The challenge will be what detection limit do we really need to tell if someone is sick or is not contagious anymore.” 

If he and Gomes or other researchers are successful, it could fundamentally change societies' abilities to mitigate the threat of disease.

If she knew everyone she worked with every day as an academic researcher had been tested for COVID-19 and cleared, Gomes said "it gives you a big peace of mind," but would also mean in-person meetings and one-on-one discussions with students would be possible again. 

More:What does victory against the COVID-19 pandemic look like? USA TODAY's vaccine panel weighs in

How would this new test work?

As things are, Gomes said there are instructions to be six feet away from students while teaching, and she moves around so as not to be talking with someone for more than 15 minutes. Every surface that's touched in class also has to be sanitized. 

If everyone was cleared of infection at the beginning of the day, she wouldn't need to worry about all that as much, and professors could "really do the engaged teaching we like to do in a university.” 

Beyond COVID-19, Claussen said their sensor could be retrofitted to detect other viruses or do other rapid testing.

More about colleges and COVID-19:

He said the antibodies in the sensor that detect COVID-19 could be swapped out for antibodies that detect foodborne pathogens such as salmonella, listeria or E. coli. 

“We’re looking at cancer diagnostics and other examples as well, but it’s certainly laying the groundwork for a rapid test," he said.

Someday, rapid testing could even be applied to look for the common cold. 

Whatever the disease is, Gomes said with rapid results, people could immediately begin mitigation strategies, and if the disease is contagious, people could be immediately more cautious about socializing. 

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.