Ottawa

From test strips to llama antibodies, U of O researchers take on COVID-19

University of Ottawa researchers are striving to make good use of a recent $27-million investment by the federal government in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Researchers are sharing in $27 million in recent federal funding

Maxim Berezovski, a University of Ottawa chemistry professor, hopes to create a test that tells someone within 15 minutes whether they have the coronavirus. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

University of Ottawa researchers are striving to make good use of a nearly $27-million investment by the federal government in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

The government announced Friday the money would go to Canadian researchers seeking to learn more about the COVID-19 respiratory illness, which had killed nearly 3,500 people worldwide as of Saturday. 

Maxim Berezovski, a University of Ottawa chemistry professor, hopes to use a slice of those funds to create a test that tells people within 15 minutes whether they've contracted the virus — all from the comforts of their own home. 

The goal, he said, is to keep hospitals from becoming clogged. 

"That's why this test would be useful," said Berezovski, one of five researchers in Ottawa who will benefit from the announcement. 

"That person will be certain, 'OK, it's not time to go to the hospital.' Otherwise, our hospitals will be overloaded with people [worried by their] symptoms."  

'Needed tomorrow'

Berezovski said his team plans to develop an aptamer — a type of molecule that binds to a specific target — that would stick to the novel coronavirus, allowing the respiratory infection to be detected. 

The aptamers would bind to hundreds of virus particles from a spit swab or a blood sample, and then change the colour of a piece of paper if the results were positive.

His team has already developed aptamers that bind to salmonella and norovirus, but engineering a new one to test for the novel coronavirus would be impossible without the approximately $400,000 his crew received.

Berezovski said the test would be similar to ones that detect pregnancies or opioids. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

If successful, Berezovski hopes the test would be mass produced and sold for less than one dollar worldwide.   

"Canada can be the leader in making this test," he said. "It will be available not just for Canadians, but for other countries as well."

"It's actually needed tomorrow."

 A broader look

Ronald Labonté, another University of Ottawa researcher who received funding, is looking at the bigger picture.

His group is trying to build a network of specialists, both in animal and human health, to prevent the spread of these kinds of viruses all over the world. 

"It's not just a biomedical problem," Labonté said. "It's not just a problem of vaccines and therapies. It's also a problem of society and cultures understanding, and the distribution of resources people might have." 

Labonté said his specialists hope to foster the World Health Organization's "One Health" principles, and as such will be examining political, economic and equity issues like whether developing countries are receiving enough support. 

The first meeting for the specialists, who began organizing before the outbreak of novel coronavirus, will be early this week. 

Dr. Marc-André Langlois plans to use the cells from llamas to create antibodies whose proteins may make a nasal vaccine for humans possible. (Patrick Louiseize/Radio-Canada)

Looking to llamas 

Another University of Ottawa researcher has a different approach in tackling the global health crisis — one that involves a few stubborn, hairy mammals.

Dr. Marc-André Langlois plans to use cells from llamas to create antibodies whose proteins may make a nasal vaccine for humans possible. 

"So several teams, research groups, around the world are working on vaccines," he said.  "Everyone's using a slightly different approach. There's more than one way of producing a vaccine."

"At this stage, we don't know what will be the best, most efficient way."

If successful, his research team — a partnership between the university and the National Research Council — will make antibodies that help identify the virus for clinics and neutralize it.

They've received approximately $1 million in funds.     

Smaller antibodies 

Langlois said llamas, camels and other camelids naturally produce single-chain antibodies, much smaller than the ones human make and therefore able to target hard-to-reach parts of the virus.

The first step, he said, will be to immunize the llamas with COVID-19.

"We'll be harvesting the cells of the llamas, and then we'll be reverse engineering the genetics of the cells that produce the antibodies," he said. 

Langlois said a member of his group will then attempt to express the viral protein in plants like rice, which will then be ground up to create the nasal spray. 

"The advantage of using plants and the sort of approach is mainly twofold," Langlois said. "The vaccine will be stable at ambient temperature so [it's] easier to ship and deploy. And also, nasal spray vaccine is generally seen as less invasive [than] a needlestick vaccine."

He said the development of the proteins will take close to two years, and then the vaccines will undergo testing. Nevertheless, he's optimistic about the research and his team's chance of success.

"We're hoping that what we are developing now will be effective against other strains of coronavirus that might emerge in the future," Langlois said.

With files from Dominique Degré and Julia Sisler

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