La Jolla Institute for Immunology
A team of scientists at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) in California developed and successfully implemented a fast, inexpensive, saliva-based COVID-19 screen that allowed the institute’s laboratories to reopen safely in 2020.
The team will receive $500,000 from XPrize and is eligible to receive $1 million total as they take steps to make their screening protocol widely available.
Led by Suzanne Alarcon, manager of the LJI Next Generation Sequencing Core, the researchers took on the project before any COVID-19 saliva-based tests had been authorized by the FDA.
To make their one-step RT-qPCR assay to detect genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 faster, safer and cheaper, they use heat to inactivate the virus (before uncapping the sample) and a detergent to process it, eliminating the expensive and time-consuming need to extract or purify RNA from a raw sample. They then repeat each screen to double-check the accuracy of the result.
Because the reaction to detect the virus is done with only a low volume, the scientists can perform high-throughput screening at a low cost. The whole protocol can be carried out in less than a day and only costs $1.21, according to the institute.
The screening has proven accurate in independently validated clinical testing, according to a news release from the institute. Alarcon’s team processes nearly 300 samples each week.
They may seek more funding to help make screening widely available for free and get sample collection kits to more people. Overall, Alarcon says the prize will give her team members more resources to take on new scientific projects.
“Winning the XPrize is validating to the whole team, who have worked extremely hard
throughout this entire process,” she said.