SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, Canada: Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in Saskatoon are currently working on two large projects that have recently received substantial federal funding. The first project is aimed at developing a novel saliva-based test for SARS-CoV-2 detection, whereas the second one aims to examine COVID-19 incidence rates among Canadian dentists.
The two projects, led by the University of Regina (U of R) in Saskatchewan and McGill University in Montreal, respectively, have secured $1.2 million (€1.1 million) in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Approximately half of the funding, over $550,000 (€445,000), will go to the researchers at the USask College of Dentistry and the USask Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization—International Vaccine Centre.
The first part of the project will be led by Dr. Walter Siqueira, an associate dean at the USask College of Dentistry, in collaboration with Prof. Jun Yang of Western University in London, Ontario, and will focus on developing a new diagnostic test for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 peptides in saliva.
“We expect that the accuracy of this test will be high because the peptide/proteins we are using is a marker for a specific SARS-CoV-2 antibody, whereas other tests often aren’t that specific”
According to the researchers, the test has clear advantages over similar SARS-CoV-2 detection methods currently being used in research. For example, it is less invasive and more sensitive and yields results in less than 5 minutes. Additionally, the test will come at an affordable price and can conveniently be taken at home or in places that do not have health care facilities.
The prototype testing device will be similar in size to a cellphone and will include features similar to those of pregnancy tests. Once the virus biomarkers combine with SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, an indicator will turn a certain color, thus indicating the presence of the virus in the saliva.
“We expect that the accuracy of this test will be high because the peptide/proteins we are using is a marker for a specific SARS-CoV-2 antibody, whereas other tests often aren’t that specific,” Siqueira noted in a press release. “As well, other saliva-based tests are based on ribonucleic acid (RNA) which synthesizes proteins, but this test is based on proteins themselves, and since proteins last longer in the saliva than RNA, the virus is more detectable,” he added.
Siqueira hopes that the test will also prove useful in detecting mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 cases, since most of the tests currently in use are not able to do so. The saliva samples will be acquired from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and the Royal University Hospital, and the test should become available to the public by March 2021.
A different part of the study is being led by a researcher from U of R, Dr. Mohan Babu, who is responsible for developing antiviral peptides that will block SARS-CoV-2 from entering or replicating human cells.
Examining COVID-19 incidence rates among Canadian dentists
In the second project, the researchers will collect saliva samples from dentists in Canada to determine the incidence rate of COVID-19 among dentists upon their return to the workplace.
“The close contact between dentists and patients, along with the use of aerosol-generating procedures, makes dental offices a potentially high-risk environment for the COVID-19 transmission,” said Siqueira. “Now that dental offices are beginning to reopen, they are implementing infection control, treatment protocols and other procedures, but there is minimal scientific evidence to support these measures. More information is needed to ensure we have evidence-based infection control guidelines that protect both the patients and the dentists.”
The researchers will collect saliva samples from 220 dentists every four weeks for one year. They will also distribute questionnaires that contain COVID-19-related questions. The data will enable the team to accurately assess the potential risk of infection in dental offices, to determine the correct personal protective equipment that should be used in dental settings, and to identify appropriate infection control measures in order to ensure the safety of patients and staff.