Mason scientists Lance Liotta and Virginia Espina share how their research helps expand on-campus COVID testing

Lance Liotta is the co-founder and the co-director of George Mason's Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine
Lance Liotta in the WGMU studios recording the Access to Excellence podcast. Photo by Naomi Fore

You’ll forgive George Mason University President Gregory Washington for his admitted “proud father moment,” but he couldn’t help but be excited during the latest “Access to Excellence” podcast when talking about recent COVID-19 research breakthroughs with Mason scientists Lance Liotta and Virginia Espina

“This is how academic research matters,” Washington said. “This is how academic research can actually provide solutions that literally can impact the world. And it is happening right now, right here at George Mason University.” 

Liotta is the co-director and the co-founder of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine within the College of Science, and Espina is the research professor who oversees the center’s high-tech lab that has been certified by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA). 

They have created a new rapid-result, saliva-based COVID-19 test that will allow Mason to significantly expand its testing capabilities this spring. They also  developed a new method to analyze COVID-19 antibodies to track response to the virus and to the vaccine. These advancements are part of a larger, comprehensive program designed to better track and control the virus on campus and help keep Mason students, faculty and staff safe. 

“This is part of your whole plan, President Washington, your whole plan to reduce the total incidents and to have everybody experience the joy of being at Mason at the same time,” Liotta said. 

The use of the saliva test with the recently acquired Fluidigm system, which is designed to analyze large numbers of test samples, will help Mason increase testing capacity from 1,000 tests per week to a goal of 10,000 by March. 

“By testing frequently and testing large numbers, we can prevent the outbreaks,” Espina said. “Using saliva tests, it makes it so easy for people to donate. It’s painless—you literally spit in a tube. It’s much cheaper, and it’s much quicker than a nasal test.” 

Liotta’s team is a multidisciplinary one that is internationally recognized for its expertise in diagnostic testing. He and Espina, who have been working together for 19 years, spoke with Washington about how they quickly pivoted away from their primary work in cancer research to help in the fight against COVID-19 following the start of the global pandemic last spring. 

“My day job is COVID testing, my evening job is COVID testing, and my night job is thinking about all the research,” joked Espina, who has a PhD in biosciences from Mason. 

Their efforts could reap added dividends later, Liotta said. 

“Everything we’ve learned about COVID is not just applied only to COVID,” he said. “It gives us insights into other diseases we’re studying.” 

Washington noted the many possible commercial and technological opportunities that are sure to arise in the wake of the pandemic and how they could potentially benefit Mason students as well. Liotta likened the potential cross-fertilization to that seen following the moon landing in 1969. 

“Everyone benefits from that,” Washington said. “More importantly, students are inspired.” 

The spotlight on COVID-19 research is the latest of its kind on the “Access to Excellence” podcast that is quickly growing in popularity.  

The podcast saw a record 292 downloads in January, a nearly 57% increase since the previous month, including 232 downloads since Jan. 11. The recent podcast on the climate change imperative with Andrew Light had the most first week downloads of any episode so far. Go to to check out these and other episodes.