College of
Human
Medicine

The people behind the Early Detection Program

This is the first of a three-part series sharing the stories of the College of Human Medicine’s people behind the scenes whose hard work and long hours enabled the university to launch the Spartan Early Detection program.

PART ONE

January 14, 2021

After developing a highly-accurate COVID-19 test for employees at Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Research Center, Joseph Patterson and Allyson Cole-Strauss were assigned a much larger task: Could they create a similar program for the entire university?

That meant scaling up to test nearly 50,000 students and many thousands of faculty and staff each week.

“At the beginning, it was sort of academic,” said Cole-Strauss, a laboratory manager in the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Neuroscience. “We thought it might be useful to people in our department. Just when we thought we’d gotten something launched, the bar was raised.”

She and Patterson have spent the past several months developing the COVID-19 Early Detection Program, setting up and equipping a new lab, and hiring and training employees to conduct the tests. That meant working long days and nights, often until 2 a.m., as well as weekends.

“It’s something I never thought I’d have to do,” said Patterson, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Translational Neuroscience. “In one regard, it was some of the most stress-inducing insanity you can think of, putting together a lab and training all these people.”

But it also was satisfying knowing that their work could stem the spread of COVID-19 and possibly save lives.

Last March, as COVID-19 began spreading around the globe, Patterson read papers on a web site by researchers in Wuhan, China, where the disease first emerged, suggesting that a machine called a Droplet Digital PCR could more-accurately detect the virus than other tests. The college routinely used a Droplet Digital PCR for testing tissue samples, so he approached his boss, Jack Lipton, PhD, chair of Translational Neuroscience, suggesting they use it to develop their own test.

Lipton, who would become director of the Early Detection Program, agreed, so Patterson and Cole-Strauss took on the task, first on a small scale.

Lipton called Patterson and Cole-Strauss “the two main unsung heroes of this program. It’s a massive undertaking to go from an idea to developing an en masse testing program for one of the largest universities in America. We’re talking breakneck speed.”

After university administrators decided last summer to expand the testing university-wide, Cole-Strauss began ordering new machines, pipettes, incubators, reagents, and everything else needed to outfit a lab. Patterson oversaw the scientific aspect, making sure the testing protocol would provide accurate results. Both recruited and trained technicians to staff the new lab, which now fills half a floor in MSU’s Bioengineering Facility on the East Lansing campus.

The lab is outfitted with six qPCR machines, similar to the Droplet Digital PCR, which will allow testing more samples much more quickly. Unlike the standard test, which uses nasal swabs, the new program tests saliva.

Participants are provided Spartan Spit Kits to collect their own saliva samples at home, which they deposit in drop boxes around the campuses. To save testing reagents and time, the lab combines several saliva samples for batch testing. If a positive result comes back, the lab can identify which participant was positive, and that person is retested. If the second test confirms the participant is positive for COVID-19, he or she can be quarantined to avoid infecting others.

“If we can find one person who’s asymptomatic but tests positive, we can pull them out of the population, and then we’ve stopped the spread from that one person,” Patterson said.

 The effort did not end with setting up the lab but required a university-wide effort to design and distribute test kits and collect the specimens.

In September, the lab began testing asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff on a voluntary basis. That meant analyzing some 600 to 800 samples each day. As students return next week, the testing becomes mandatory, requiring much more testing by the lab, which has a capacity of 4,500 tests each day.

Asymptomatic students living, working, or attending classes on any of MSU’s campuses will be required to submit spit samples each week. Other students, faculty and staff may voluntarily join the program.

Participants can register on the COVID-19 Early Detection Program web site.

“Figuring out how to scale it up was a huge undertaking,” Cole-Strauss said. She soon will return to her previous work managing Lipton’s neuroscience lab in Grand Rapids.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to be useful,” she said, adding that it was “an incredible challenge.”

Patterson, who will eventually turn more of his attention back to his Parkinson’s disease research, added: “Every day I walk into this lab, and I’m surprised how far all of this has come in such a short time.”