A gentle hum can be heard from a lab in the depths of the University of South Carolina’s life sciences building. Take a peek inside, and you’ll find something unusual.
Thousands of tubes of the spit belonging to the university’s students, faculty, staff and Columbia residents.
Almost a year ago, the school’s colon cancer lab changed course from its usual area of study and started analyzing how it could help as COVID-19 ravaged the world, killing hundreds of thousands across the country and shutting down campuses.
USC professors had a breakthrough when they started studying saliva there, said biomedical sciences professor Phillip Buckhaults.
They ended up creating what looks like a blue cocktail — and it exposes the COVID-19 genome in our saliva.
“We figured out a way to photocopy bits of the COVID genome,” Buckhaults said. “It’s like a liquid photocopier.”
It’s proven to be more efficient than nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing. There’s no uncomfortable nasal swab involved. Materials for nasal-swab testing are often limited. And these saliva results come quicker. Those who get tested on USC’s campus typically receive results within 24 hours.
When the saliva testing first began on campus, scientists were pipetting saliva samples with the “photocopier” liquid to see the COVID-19 genome appeared in the DNA when the saliva was “photocopied” several times.
Because it was done solely by hand, they were able to test only several dozen samples a day.
“The demand was more than we could keep up with,” Buckhaults said.
So he sent an email pleading with USC president Harris Pastides for a liquid-handling robot that’s able to do the pipetting automatically, saving a lot of time.
Pastides then got South Carolina-based Nephron Pharmaceuticals owner Lou Kennedy to write Buckhault a $14,000 check to buy one of the robots.
“Within two weeks, we went from a junkie, underutilized, decrepit lab space to really state-of-the-art,” said laboratory director and professor Carolyn Banister.
Buckhaults also credited former USC president Bob Caslen for removing roadblocks to get more machines and a bigger lab — speeding up the process to speed up the process, so to speak.
Caslen worked with the state government and university officials to get thousands of dollars for lab equipment and borrowed testing machines from nearby labs, Buckhaults said.
“He saved a lot of lives in the Midlands by pouring resources into (Banister) and that lab and getting this test running,” Buckhaults said.
Now, the lab is testing about 2,000 samples a day and returning samples within 24 hours, and its reach is beyond the Midlands. Quick-turnaround testing allows people to identify themselves as COVID-19-positive earlier and isolate themselves, reducing the spread of the virus and saving lives.
The testing technology has expanded across the state. USC satellite campuses, including Upstate and Union, as well as Clemson, Winthrop, the College of Charleston and Trident Technical College are able to use the saliva tests created at the USC lab.
The testing is able to recognize different variants of COVID-19 as well.