Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Detecting COVID-19 Through Saliva Research
The HWS Update
Elana Stennett and Jenna Hyman, in lab Rosenburg

Detecting COVID-19 Through Saliva Research

As researchers around the world race to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Elana Stennett and Jenna Hyman ’23 have joined the effort by conducting research on the viscosity of saliva. Through a collaboration with faculty and students at the University of Rochester and St. John Fisher College, their research has been used in the development of a point-of-care device for detecting the virus SARS-CoV-2.

At the University of Rochester, researcher Dr. James McGrath submitted a proposal for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in saliva using membrane technology developed in his lab. McGrath secured a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant through the National Research Foundation (NSF) to design and create a working prototype that would prioritize being fast and easy to use. Stennett, fellow collaborator Dr. Fernando Ontiveros-Llamas, and McGrath were awarded a Research Opportunity Award through the NSF to supplement this work.

“If saliva is highly viscous and slow to move, we can then ask, “What does that mean when we’re trying to filter something out of it?” Namely, says Stennett, SARS-CoV-2. Stennett and Hyman also considered the complexity of saliva, which is filled with many substances, including electrolytes, mucus, cells and various enzymes.

Due to the pandemic, Hyman’s summer research experience was split between at-home and on-campus research. At home, Hyman used egg whites as a substitute for saliva, because it is safer and mimics many of the same properties.

To measure the viscosity of egg whites, Hyman created her own device using household items, including a water bottle, straw, balloon and a small piece of plastic bag to mimic a membrane. This allowed her to determine how much or little egg white or water moved through the device based on different pressures, and to then draw conclusions about how viscosity would affect pushing saliva through a membrane in a detection device.

While working at home presented several challenges, Hyman says, it also gave her the opportunity to flex her creativity. “There were many times that I had to change a part of the design. I went through a lot of prototypes and each time I had to adjust for confounding variables. But there was also parts of the experiment that I couldn’t change, like the temperature of the room, or the quality of the water. It was gratifying to then be able to go into the lab environment and test my results.”

In the lab, Hyman ran tests using fluorescent proteins. She has continued conducting research during the fall semester. In order to more closely mimic SARS-CoV-2, which is 120 nanometers in size, she will replicate the tests using nanoparticles.

Both Hyman and Stennett acknowledge, however, that ready answers weren’t waiting in the lab either. Stennett’s lab is usually used for water purification research, and the technology needed to be modified for their experiments.

“One day we had to redo the flux setup – a device we use to measure how solutions foul, or clog, membranes based on different solution chemistries. We had to replace part of the set-up and create a switch that would move the pressure (and thus the solution) in two different directions,” Hyman says. “Professor Stennett was actually looking at me to help her figure it out, and I’m like – Oh, I have something to say here. I can give my input. If I keep my mouth shut, we probably won’t figure this out as soon as we could.”

Stennett and Hyman met with their UR and St. John Fisher partners weekly to share their results and to troubleshoot issues. “We were able to confirm that, yes, viscosity is going to be a bit of an issue, but it’s not the major one,” Stennett says. “Really the major problem is how complex saliva is.”

Stennett is in conversation with McGrath and Ontiveros-Llamas about pursuing further study.

The photo above of Jenna Hyman ’23 and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Elana Stennett was taken during the summer when COVID protocols permitted face shields alone as protective gear.