Seattle, WA – November 1, 2023

Washington Research Foundation (WRF) has awarded a $250,000 technology commercialization grant to support additional development of a patient-friendly saliva collection device by Ashleigh Theberge, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Washington’s (UW) Department of Chemistry. Theberge and colleagues Sanitta Thongpang, Ph.D., and Erwin Berthier, Ph.D., developed the device, CandyCollect, to enable reliable at-home collection of saliva samples from children and other populations who find clinical visits difficult. WRF provided previous grants totaling $144,950 to assist Theberge with early-stage product development and proof-of-principle studies.

CandyCollect offers a convenient and noninvasive alternative to conventional saliva collection methods, which typically involve a patient having to undergo a throat swab, mouth swab, or spit into a tube prior to the sample being tested for bacterial or viral infections such as group A Streptococcus (strep throat). CandyCollect mimics a standard lollipop but contains microfluidic channels in the top of the handle near the candy. As the patient sucks on the lollipop, saliva travels through the channels and pathogens like group A Streptococcus adhere to the channel surface. The device employs a flavor-release technology to ensure the process is not rushed and a suitable quantity of sample is obtained. The familiar process of using a lollipop reduces the anxiety and discomfort that many patients—particularly children—feel when having to provide a saliva sample. The collected sample is then sent to the clinic to be tested for pathogens.

CandyCollect shows significant potential as an alternative for many invasive saliva tests that require regular or frequent sampling, including SARS-CoV-2. The fact that it can be administered at home increases the accessibility of tests for many populations for whom time and distance are barriers.

Theberge’s research has demonstrated that CandyCollect reliably collects samples for accurate testing of bacterial and viral infections, and she will now expand the device’s applications to include fungal pathogens such as Candida albicans. Conventional testing and analysis of fungal pathogens is inconsistent compared with viral and bacterial pathogens. As a result, the prevalence of fungal pathogens is not fully known, but they can pose serious health risks and technologies to accurately collect and measure them are needed.

“We are grateful for this new funding from the WRF that will enable us to advance the CandyCollect technology, ultimately making it available to pediatric and adult patients,” Theberge said. “Past funding from WRF has enabled our team to launch multiple clinical studies and supported the research of four graduate students and twelve undergraduate students working on the CandyCollect team over the last three years. Many of these students have since graduated and are making important contributions to biomedical science in industry and academia.”

“We are delighted to provide further support for this talented group of scientists to help bring CandyCollect to patients,” WRF’s director of grant programs, Meher Antia, Ph.D., said. “The impact of this type of patient-centric innovation is clear, as CandyCollect has the potential to transform the generally unpleasant experience of collecting saliva, particularly from young children.”

In addition to expanding CandyCollect’s applications to include fungal pathogens, Theberge will use WRF’s latest funding to optimize the device’s usability and manufacturing. This will include ensuring that the device is as effective and durable as possible, reducing the potential need for retests, while simultaneously streamlining the processing of samples for rapid, accurate results. As the project progresses, Theberge and her colleagues will continue to explore distribution options to enable the tests to reach the patients who need them most. This is likely to include an all-in-one testing and diagnostic kit that works in a similar way to the rapid COVID tests that have become familiar to many.