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Oilsands company helps develop COVID antibody test

Technology for treating wastewater repurposed for development of serology tests
Serology tests to determine who has immunity to COVID-19 is an important tool in the fight against the virus. | Shutterstock

Canada’s largest oilsands company, Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU), is donating technology it developed for treating wastewater for the development of COVID-19 antibody tests.

The technology is being given to Western University scientists, who hope to harness the technology to produce antibodies from microalgae.

Serology tests – i.e. testing for antibodies – will be an important tool for managing both the economy and the disease, since these tests can determine who has immunity to the virus.

Suncor had developed technology that uses micoalgae to produce proteins that can be used to break down bacteria in wastewater.

Mitacs, which pairs industry with scientists, had put out a call to industry to help in the fight against COVID-19, and Suncor quickly realized it had something scientists could use in the fight against the virus.

“When sequencing RNA or DNA, be it human, bacteria or virus, all the procedures are very similar,” said Martin Flatley, a senior project manager from Suncor’s Sarnia refinery.

“We’ve been using software and hardware to sequence bacteria found in our process water as well as the genes that produce proteins to assist in breaking down contaminants. We’re hopeful that we could use the same process for use in a test kit.”

Other serology tests currently being developed use yeast, or insect or mammal cells to produce the proteins needed for serology tests, which is more expensive and harder to scale than using microalgae.

“We are using a microalgae that shows a lot of promise for not only producing the protein needed, but producing it with the correct modifications to mimic how it's made in humans,” said Daniel Giguere, PhD candidate at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“They already know how to do the engineering required,” said John Hepburn, CEO and Scientific Director of Mitacs. “And so for them it was a relatively simple change. It was a spring-forward scientific and engineering challenge for them to use the same technology, the algae technology, to generate the compound they needed for these test kits.”

Suncor will provide both the technology and the research facilities needed for the Western University scientists to develop the serology test kits. Suncor and Mitacs will provide funding to two Western University PhD candidates working on the project.

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