Newswise — PHILADELPHIA, December 28, 2020 – A Monell Chemical Senses Center and Temple University team recently became part of a new, multi-institute National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded initiative called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostic Radical program (RADx). The NIH invested $107 million at 43 institutions across the country to support non-traditional and repurposed technologies to combat the pandemic and address future viral disease outbreaks.

Within the overall NIH RADx grants, the three-year Monell/Temple project is one of four studies funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

“The award represents a significant achievement as Monell’s first major effort to validate SCENTinel, a rapid smell test,” said study principal investigator Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, Monell Member. “This work not only has the potential to be groundbreaking for rapid identification of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but is a major step towards incorporating universal smell screening as a routine part of medical care.”

Currently, COVID-19 diagnosis is best done by a biological test, often a viral swab, but these tests are relatively costly, still not widely available, and the results can take days to weeks to obtain and include up to 37% false negatives. As a result, symptom-based screening is widely used in population surveillance.

“Smell loss is a common neurological symptom of COVID-19,” said study co-principal investigator Valentina Parma, PhD, Research Assistant Professor of Psychology, Temple University and Adjunct Assistant Member at the Monell Center. “This grant will enable us to develop and validate a rapid test for predicting infection that can be used for daily screening at home, or at entry to schools or the workplace.”

Recent research suggests that the sudden loss of smell is the best predictor of COVID-19 compared with fever or other symptoms. The challenge is to make a smell test that is inexpensive and quick to administer, yet still a reliable predictor of COVID-19.

“Recent studies indicate that smell tests detect up to 20 percent more COVID-19 cases than do self-report or using subjective measures, such as rating smell loss on a scale from 0 to 10,” said Dalton. “Because of this, a test such as SCENTinel may better separate COVID-19 positive and negative cases.” Overall, the team hopes to show that measurement of a loss of smell predicts or predates a positive molecular COVID test.

 The specific aims of the Monell/Temple RADx grant are:

  • Predict a COVID-19 positive test result via a one-time-use, rapid smell test
  • Use SCENTinel repeatedly to monitor daily for early signs of COVID-19
  • Validate SCENTinel with a gold-standard smell test, the NIH Toolbox® Odor Identification test

“We are validating SCENTinel across age groups, from children to college students, from adults to the elderly,” said Parma. “This broad approach, which will include more than 15,000 people, will help us capture variations of manifestations of COVID-19, as well as learn more about smell abilities in the general population.” SCENTinel may also be an important tool for studying COVID recovery.

This is a project in collaboration with several other Monell scientists (Drs. Reed, O’Leary, and Hannum), Temple University, Northwestern University, Yale University School of Medicine, and other partner testing sites. To learn more about the test, contact [email protected] and read more here in a preprint publication.

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The Monell Chemical Senses Center is an independent nonprofit basic research institute based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1968, Monell‘s mission is to improve health and well-being by advancing the scientific understanding of taste, smell, and related senses, where our discoveries lead to improving nutritional health, diagnosing and treating disease, addressing smell and taste loss, and digitizing chemosensory data.