General and inexpensive saliva-based viral RNA testing by direct imaging

In the absence of a vaccine and/or effective treatment, rapid and robust testing is vital not only to reduce the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also for paving the way to safely reopen borders and reinstating the world economy. Most Covid-19 tests are performed using nasopharyngeal swabs that are sent to a hospital or public health laboratory to be processed for RT-PCR analysis using expensive equipment by technically trained staff. The specificity of such amplification-based tests makes them superior to many other detection tests. However, the occurrence of false-negative results due to the low levels of viral RNA found in such samples, as exemplified by recent problems with Spartan Cube1, suggests that avoiding nucleic acid amplification entirely and switching to the direct detection of viral RNA could be highly advantageous for SARS-CoV-2 detection.

Funded by the CIHR Rapid Research Opportunity and MSFHR, Dr. Peter Unrau is leading a team of researchers to develop a new saliva-based viral testing strategy for use in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Unrau (professor in RNA biochemistry) and co-investigator Dr. Forde (professor in biological physics) will coordinate a research team at Simon Fraser University. They will work in collaboration with David Rueda, a professor in single-molecule imaging at Imperial College London.

This COVID-19 research will allow the development of a fast, inexpensive and sensitive viral RNA test that, in principle, could be used for point of care testing at home. The proposed SARS-CoV-2 RNA single-molecule imaging test will be highly specific, will rely on simple well-understood chemistry, and will include an inexpensive imaging device that connects to a cell phone. An additional benefit of this device is that test procedures can easily be adapted for the screening of other RNA pathogens in the future.

Funding competition: CIHR Operating Grant: COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity – Diagnostics

Funders: CIHR; MSFHR

End of award update – January 2022

Most exciting outputs
We have developed a prototype device able to test for viral pathogens in spit. This device can report results easily over the internet and has many potential rapid testing applications.

Impact so far
Reliable and inexpensive point of care diagnostic technology is extremely important during a pandemic for both primary and community health care. As can be seen with the explosive spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, RT-PCR test centers are overwhelmed and there is no coherent way to report point of care test results to centralized government agencies. We have developed an inexpensive (< $100 if mass produced) point of care instrument that via the internet can simply and reliably report test results to centralized data centers. This device accepts modular test cartridges, which could, with further development, offer a broad range of test services at low cost. Such a device has many uses, but could easily be imagined to play an important role in rural and remove health care locations in the future. While now only a proof of principle prototype, future investment should result in a device able to provide a health benefit to BC citizens.

Potential future influence
Inexpensive point of care tests are difficult to develop and implement. Our device offers a potential solution to this global problem.

Next steps
We are seeking further investments by third parties to commercialize our prototype technology.

Useful link
Laboratory website: