Western researchers are making strides towards rapid antibody testing, an important tool to help curb the pandemic, using algae.

Biochemistry PhD candidates Daniel Giguere and Sam Slattery, who work in Western University professor David Edgell's lab, have pioneered a cost effective use of algae to mass produce pandemic coronavirus variant proteins.

Rapid antibody tests will hopefully be used to monitor COVID-19 antibody resistance around the world and determine the effectiveness of vaccines.

COVID-19 spike proteins, the iconic spikes on the surface of coronaviruses, are critical for the production of these tests because they are used to determine the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in blood samples. This is a similar concept to over-the-counter pregnancy tests, where a patient sample is placed on a stick and the positive or negative result can be quickly seen with the naked eye.

The traditional techniques for producing viral proteins for antibody testing remain effective, but are not a viable option to meet future global demand.

Trying to meet the forecasted boom in demand by scaling up traditional protein production methods would “break the system,” according to Edgell. He points out these traditional techniques require a massive amount of resources that could otherwise be diverted toward vaccine production and other diagnostic tools. This was the main reason his lab turned to algae for a solution last year.

Using the same concept as other biopharming, algae’s protein production system is essentially hijacked to produce the desired protein.

“There’s a couple benefits to this particular species of algae we’re working on,” says Dr. Edgell. “One is that it grows very cheaply — it basically just needs sea water and sunlight.”

The growth medium required for traditional viral protein production can cost thousands of dollars per litre. Using algae is a much cheaper alternative.

Producing a litre of algae “basically costs less than a dollar,” says Edgell, who also explains that algae require less infrastructure to grow.

“Algae can grow anywhere. We don’t need specialized reactors that are temperature controlled and regulated with carbon dioxide, with specific bio-containment requirements,” Edgell explains.

Unlike bacteria and yeast, this species of algae has cellular machinery capable of producing COVID-19 spike proteins suitable for diagnostic use.

The Edgell lab recently partnered with Toronto-based company Pond Technologies, whose 20,000 litre bioreactors will be used to ramp up production efforts in hopes to satisfy global demand.

“We could literally make a ton of protein,” says Edgell.

The demand for viral proteins will continue to grow alongside the demand for rapid antibody testing as COVID-19 persists. As the world emerges on the other side of this pandemic, keeping track of immunity in populations will be essential to avoid new outbreaks.

Rapid antibody tests are especially important for potential “immunity passports” for traveling or returning to work once vaccines have been rolled out.

The contributions of Western's Edgell lab, like many other research endeavors this year, mark an instrumental step toward a post-coronavirus world.


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