The spin on spit

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDentistry and Biochemistry professor Walter Siqueira, one of the few dental clinician-scientists in Canada conducting salivary proteome research, has created a new technology that can test for the Zika virus more than six times longer after infection than current testing methods.

“My life is saliva,” said Dentistry and Biochemistry professor Walter Siqueira, one of the first and only dental clinician-scientists in Canada conducting salivary proteome research.

Don’t believe him? His license plate reads SALIVA 1.

Busy creating new salivary proteins to help prevent tooth decay and gum disease, Siqueira is also using saliva to identify biomarkers for oral and systemic diseases, including kidney disease or asthma.

His latest spin on spit may have worldwide impact with better detection of the Zika virus.

In early 2015, the virus quickly spread from Brazil to other parts of South and North America. Parental exposure to Zika virus can cause fetal microcephaly (underdeveloped brain and skull in newborns) even after the mother’s active infection has subsided and symptoms have resolved. Because of this, there is a need to easily, rapidly and reliably detect both active and previous Zika exposures.

Siqueira said the current gold standard used by Health Canada and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect the Zika virus are limited either by their narrow window of testing or by their lack of specificity in detecting Zika over similar, and often non-threatening, viruses.

Right now, they use the blood, saliva or urine and analyze the RNA (ribonucleic acid) of the virus, but the big problem with that method is that the window of detection is limited to within five days of the start of the infection, said Siqueira.

“Our method uses the peptide of the virus, which stays longer. The average is usually 20-25 days depending on the level of the infection, but we have samples we detected as far along as nine months.”

With the majority of the Zika virus cases coming from developing countries, the need for technology near the patient is key. Siqueira has that checked-off too.

“We developed a technology that needs machines worth millions of dollars and the samples were required to be brought in,” he said. “The idea of the project is to have point-of-care technology, which is the size of a cell phone. You could spit on it and get the results. You could be in the middle of the Amazon forest and be able to access it.”

Siqueira’s research is currently part of the Proteus Innovation Competition, part of Western’s Propel accelerator program, an intense four-month competition that will challenge individuals to create a viable commercialization strategy for one of three new technologies.

Siqueira added his research is one of those ‘why didn’t we think of that before?’ sort of idea.

“This is a classic concept of biochemistry, that proteins and peptides are more stable than RNA,” he said. “So, we simply used this classic concept to create this new method and it worked fine. We have the technology ready, if needed, to apply towards different viruses that may arise in the future. Sometimes the great ideas are always the simple ones.”

The Proteus Innovation Competition is a four-month challenge, as part of Western’s Propel accelerator, to create a viable commercialization strategy for one of three promising technologies. Competitors will hone their business skills, work with experienced advisors, accelerate commercialization on discoveries coming out of London’s top institutions and vie for a $5,000 prize, said Ian Haase, Director of Entrepreneurship (Propel). Proteus is open to anyone in the community older than 18 with an interest in developing their business skills and creating new networks.