Using plant power in the rapid production of COVID-19 antibody tests

Science

- Vimala Jeevanandam

Peter Constabel is tapping Nicotiana benthamiana for its ability to quickly produce virus proteins, such as those of COVID-19. Photo: UVic Photo Services

To meet the global demand for COVID-19 spike protein needed for antibody test kits, University of Victoria plant biologist Peter Constabel has turned to an unexpected source: a relative of the tobacco plant.

Nicotiana benthamiana has an unusual and fascinating superpower: the ability to quickly produce virus proteins. Constabel is teaming up with UVic biochemist Alisdair Boraston, as well as bioLytical Laboratories and ImmunoPrecise Antibodies (Canada) to apply this power to solve the shortage of COVID-19 spike protein needed for antibody testing.

Graduate student Harley Gordon
Graduate student Harley Gordon holds a Nicotiana benthamiana seedling. Photo: Vimala Jeevanandam

Antibody tests, also known as serology tests, can detect if a person’s body has already responded to an infection such as COVID-19. This allows an individual to know if they have had a past infection and allows health officials and governments to track and control the spread of the disease. Given the large number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, antibody tests are an essential tool in the fight against the disease. However, the large-scale production of these tests is both costly and time-consuming, reliant on production of spike protein using animal cell cultures in laboratories.

This quick-growing plant may offer a solution, allowing the spike protein be produced by plants in greenhouses. It can be tricked into producing virus proteins, such as the COVID-19 spike protein, by inserting the virus’s genes into the plant, using a bacterium as a vector. As the plant grows, it produces the virus’s proteins, which can then be extracted and purified for use.

Graduate student Harley Gordon
Harley Gordon tends seedlings in UVic’s Ben Glover Greenhouse. Photo: Vimala Jeevanandam
If successful, this will allow for a much cheaper and more efficient source of COVID-19 spike protein. It could dramatically accelerate the production of antibody tests in Canada.
Peter Constabel, UVic plant biologist

BC-based health technology companies bioLytical Laboratories and ImmunoPrecise Antibodies (Canada) will characterize and test the spike protein produced by the plant to establish if they can effectively be used for antibody tests.

The UVic-led project is made possible through a special version of the Alliance grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada which promotes collaboration between industry and academia for projects that specifically address COVID-19.

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Keywords: Research Accelerator Fund, COVID, health, community, administrative

People: Peter Constabel, Harley Gordon, Alisdair Boraston


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