Huber Heights native helps develop test to detect COVID-19 infection

Huber Heights native Mark Espy is part of a Mayor Clinic team that has developed a test that can detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“An individual can now receive his or her result for SARS-CoV-2 within 24 hours,” explained Dr. Matthew Binnicker, a clinical microbiologist and director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic.

MORE: Coronavirus: Complete Coverage Dayton Daily News

The clinical virology laboratory at the Mayo Clinic produces about 1,000 tests a day. The tests give results in about 24 hours.

Espy, a Wright State University graduate and clinical researcher, has done molecular and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing at Mayo. He and his colleagues were instrumental in developing real-time PCR for use in the clinical laboratory.

PCR is a method used widely in molecular biology to make up to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample rapidly, enabling scientists to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study in detail.

Because of the experience Espy had gained from years of laboratory analyses, he was able to take the published genetic sequence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and develop probes to detect it using PCR.

MORE: Wright State offers help for students during the coronavirus pandemic

“The program picked out what it believes are good sequences to use based on the parameters I have set. I then look at the chosen sequences and based on my experience and intuition, I pick what I think are the best ones,” Espy explained. “The sequences are then made to be ready for testing. The hard part was determining how well the sequences worked.”

The PCR test will alleviate some of the heavy burden that testing centers are going through as the pandemic overwhelms them according to Dr. William Morice, president of the Mayo Clinic Laboratories.

“This test should help ease some of the burden that is currently being felt at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health laboratories,” he said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to help relieve the burden during this time to provide answers for patients here in Rochester and around the world.”

MORE: With enrollment down, Wright State freezes spending, cuts administrators’ pay

The accomplishment for Espy, who previously developed a test to detect H1NI, the most common cause of human influenza in 2009 and associated with the 1918 outbreak known as the Spanish flu, is another major scientific breakthrough.

He grew up in Dayton, graduating from Wayne High School in 1975. In 1979, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Otterbein College, where he was inspired by a lecture from a microbiology professor from Wright State.

Espy graduated from Wright State with a master’s degree in microbiology in 1981 and for the following three years worked on his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Louisville.

“Getting my master’s degree at Wright State University was an incredible experience,” he said. “The experience taught me a lot and set me on the path of the career I have today.”

MORE: Archdeacon: Wright State athletics still ‘hands-on,’ even with rubber gloves

Stories of Hope

We all need inspiration in these difficult times. And as always, this community delivers. We are sharing these stories of hope in action, every day in the Dayton Daily News.

About the Author