Until the coronavirus pandemic ends, COVID testing will remain mandatory in some settings, which could be good news for a Branford company that developed a rapid, saliva-based detection test.
Wren Laboratories devised its test after Gov. Ned Lamont and state health officials approached them last year, said Mark Kidd, Wren’s scientific and laboratory director.
He said Wren’s scientists decided to focus on a saliva-based test since the nasal swab method “feels like your brain is going to explode.”
“The swab is not very pleasant so we thought, ‘OK, the first thing we were going to do is develop an easy-to-collect test with saliva,’” Kidd told the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council's Paul Pescatello in a CBIA BizCast.
“We developed a saliva collection kit, which allows for an easy and rapid collection, then focused on a couple of areas to maximize the collection and test performances.
“One was ensuring the virus was collected without degrading the sample because RNA viruses are not stable in saliva.”
Wren built a special buffer that enables them to collect the saliva while protecting the COVID RNA sample from any degradation. This is especially important for detecting low viral loads.
The lab’s work with the federal Food and Drug Administration indicates the test is highly accurate and will likely detect all known mutants including the Delta or Indian mutation, Kidd said.
The test has a 24-hour turnaround time and Wren Labs has the capacity to run thousands of tests each day. The test has also increased business for Wren Labs.
“The biggest areas where we are doing testing are essential manufacturing, farming and agriculture, and schools,” Kidd said.
And with children under 12 not yet cleared to receive COVID vaccines, Kidd said they expect to hear from more schools.
“We’ve received a lot of interest from groups who want to test school children just because they want to go back to some form of normality,” he said.
“I can’t forecast what the FDA or the CDC are going to choose to do, but it’s likely that testing will become normalized for kids going back to school.”
Kidd said this means there will likely be tests once a week, and that bulk testing or random testing protocols could be put in place.
“Testing is going to become part of our normal lives,” he said.
Increased business from the testing meant Wren Labs had to expand its workforce.
“The business environment has allowed us to grow, and there’s a whole set of resources—intellectual resources—that we can tap into,” he said.
When Wren’s testing began to explode, it turned to UConn, the University of New Haven, and Southern Connecticut State University to find talent.
“We’ve really been lucky in that Connecticut has provided us with the resources we’ve needed to be successful,” Kidd said.
It was Wren’s work with cancer testing that first caught the attention of state health officials, who later approached the company about developing a COVID PCR test.
One of the biggest concerns for patients and doctors after a cancer is removed is whether some of it remains or whether the cancer will return.
“I’m sure there are many times that people were told they have been cured. But we all know, with time, diseases do recur, cancers do recur,” Kidd said.
Sometimes, it’s years before cancer returns.
But a highly accurate PCR blood test that Wren Labs developed can determine if the cancer remains after surgery.
“The test is so accurate, it will detect disease up to two years before standard approaches like imaging can detect the disease,” Kidd said.
“PCR is a wonderful tool because it can be used not only to amplify the COVID virus to detect it in saliva, even when the presence is low, the same approach can also be used to amplify any cancer genes.”
Wren Labs is developing these types of PCR tests to help physicians and surgeons manage their patients. They are also working to develop tests that can monitor whether the patient is responding to a therapy.
“It makes good sense not to spend money on expensive treatments that don’t work,” he said.
Since early detection is the best way to treat cancers, Wren Labs is developing a prostate cancer test that they hope to have ready soon, along with a breast cancer test.
The company is also working on a series of other tests for cancers—including lung and colon—that they hope to provide to doctors to help manage patients.
“It’s in our DNA at Wren to develop assays that can help individuals and, like our COVID test, help businesses in Connecticut,” Kidd said.
“We hope to expand our portfolio of cancer tests, develop tools to collect smaller and smaller blood samples, and develop a point of care tool somewhere along the line.
“We have everything in place to respond to the next viral attack in Connecticut and the U.S., and we’ll continue responding as needed.”
CBIA members can get a special discount on rapid COVID-19 testing from Wren Laboratories.
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