Queensland-made antibody test for COVID-19 detection

11 November 2020

Queensland-made proteins and sophisticated antibody test for COVID-19 detection

Locally made coronavirus proteins produced in a state-of-the-art laboratory in Brisbane are proving highly useful in a sophisticated blood test for COVID-19.

The University of Queensland’s Protein Expression Facility (PEF) partnered with the Public Health Virology team at Forensic and Scientific Services (FSS), Queensland Health to develop SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins

These synthetic proteins can be used in a blood test to safely screen patient antibodies for prior exposure to COVID-19.

UQ PEF Director Professor Linda Lua said the high-quality proteins were extremely valuable in determining the robustness and reliability of the antibody blood test, an important capability for detecting COVID-19 in Queensland.

“Manufacturing synthetic SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins in Queensland is testament to the technological expertise available in the state,” Professor Lua said.

“PEF was able to respond rapidly as the pandemic emerged because the facility has a track record in producing proteins and is equipped with a range of production capabilities.

“Using these proteins has other significant benefits like reducing biohazard risks from not working with the live virus and having a scalable and consistent production line – especially critical during pandemics.

“As a Queensland-based provider, we can help ensure a degree of supply chain security against testing shortages resulting from issues with international vendors or shipping delays.”

FSS Senior Research Scientist Dr Alyssa Pyke said an early and rapid response was critical for protecting the public against any disease outbreak and was vital during a pandemic.

“As the state’s reference laboratory, we provide essential testing capabilities and public health support for the detection of dangerous viruses like the novel coronavirus,” Dr Pyke said.

“We need a holistic approach when dealing with viral outbreaks and protecting the community at large. This means looking for evidence of the virus itself as well as antibodies in patients who may have had the disease.

“The team were able to quickly develop diagnostics before cases arrived from overseas and were the first to isolate the virus in Queensland.

(L-R) Professor Linda Lua, Ms Carmel Taylor and Dr Alyssa Pyke during their visit to UQ's Protein Expression Facility.

“Being able to recover and grow live SARS-CoV-2 meant we could rapidly provide DNA templates of different parts of the virus to PEF, which they then used to manufacture a set of coronavirus proteins."

Over several years, FSS has successfully collaborated with PEF to make diagnostic proteins for Hendra and Zika viruses which can be used in antibody tests.

For the first time in Australia, FSS Senior Serologist Carmel Taylor has successfully developed a sophisticated antibody test for the novel coronavirus using specialised technology.

Antibody testing known as serology is based on the potential ability of patient antibodies to bind to viral proteins in much the same way as they bind to virus particles during an infection.

“We are one of only a few laboratories nationally who have a unique serology technology for antibody testing which gives us increased testing senstitivity and reduced turn-around times,” Ms Taylor said.

“By coating the viral proteins onto tiny beads called microspheres, we can test patient blood for specific SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, indicating if they may have had COVID-19.

“As an added advantage, the beads used have individual dye markers so we can quickly test a single patient sample against several parts of the virus or a number of different viruses at the same time.”   

UQ PEF and FSS acknowledged the efforts of scientists and researchers in tackling the pandemic and building successful collaborations and sustainable health solutions, ranging from the development of diagnostics to vaccines and therapeutics. 

Image above left (L-R): Professor Linda Lua, Carmel Taylor and Dr Alyssa Pyke during their visit to UQ's Protein Expression Facility. 

Media: UQ Communications, communications@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 7575.