Spin-off Spotlight: Lucence

From time to time, the research work at the Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB) is commercialised through spin-off companies. One such company is Lucence, which was recently in the headlines for providing COVID-19 pre-departure saliva testing. The company makes state-of-the-art, highly sensitive liquid biopsy tests for disease detection and treatment selection.

The A*STAR spin-off was founded by former IBB scientist, Dr Tan Min-Han. During his time at the Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging, Dr Tan and other IBB scientists developed easy and accessible saliva testing kits for RNA viral outbreaks, such as Zika and dengue fever.

One of the scientists is our research fellow, Dr Rachel Sim, who worked with Dr Tan between 2016 to 2017. We asked her about her contributions to the efforts and how it has motivated her to continue contributing to translational research.

Q: Could you share your involvement in this project?

I previously worked with Dr Tan Min-Han to create saliva test kits for easy and accessible mass-testing during RNA viral outbreaks, such as Zika and dengue fever. I developed the technology for stabilizing viral RNA at room temperature for up to one week without significant degradation. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we quickly recognized that this technology could also be used to detect SARS-CoV-2. The optimized stabilizing formulation was licensed to Lucence and incorporated into the SAFER-Clinic Saliva collection kit for the diagnosis of COVID-19 infections.


Photo by Lucence

Q: How long did it take to develop the saliva test kits?

In the time that I was working with Dr Tan from 2016 to 2017, it took about half a year to develop the kits.

Q: What were some challenges you and the team faced while developing the saliva test?

RNA has poor stability, especially in saliva samples where there are abundant enzymes that can degrade RNA. The main challenge was to ensure that we could preserve the viral signal immediately upon sample collection, so that we could maximise sensitivity. We also had to consider the practical limitations of cold-chain transport in the real world, so we worked to keep the costs down and increase testing accessibility by removing the need to keep samples chilled. 

Q: Why and how is the saliva test more sensitive than a nasal swab?

This could be due to enrichment from nasal and oropharyngeal secretions, where the viral load is potentially higher. The higher volume of sample collected could also contribute to increasing sensitivity. Recent literature from Yale also reports encouraging observations of increased sensitivity in saliva samples over nasal swabs.

Saliva test kits are also non-invasive and, therefore less uncomfortable, which could be better suited for individuals who are afraid of nasal swabs, such as children.

This video demonstrates how the saliva kit works:

Q: How has the experience helped you in your career as a researcher?

I am immensely proud to see my research turned into a commercial product at Lucence and being used for COVID-19 testing. This project has motivated me to develop more technologies so that I can contribute to solutions for emerging biomedical problems. I also learnt that it is important to evolve your technology around changing needs. My experience with developing the saliva test kits has made me more conscious about translating my research findings into potential applications.

You can read more about the saliva test kits here. To learn more about Lucence, you can visit their website.