Canadian scientists use algae to produce low-cost coronavirus test kits

Researchers in Canada are using algae to rapidly develop low-cost serological test kits for COVID-19 that they say would determine if someone has been infected with the novel coronavirus.

The new method overcomes shortfalls of existing processes while saving money, according to the researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

The team collaborated with Canadian integrated energy company Suncor to develop algae as a production factory to make necessary proteins to identify COVID-19 antibodies in someone previously infected with the disease.

“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,” Daniel Giguere from the University of Western Ontario said in a statement.

“We are leveraging our in-house expertise and technology to rapidly produce the proteins and validate their effectiveness as a testing reagent,” Sam Slattery from the university added.

The researchers noted that one of the limiting factors in developing large-scale serological testing is the ability to make significant quantities of the viral proteins on a cost-effective basis.

Current tests rely on proteins made in reagents such as insect or mammalian cells which are expensive and difficult to scale, they said.

According to the researchers, algae are cheap to grow and can easily be engineered to produce the viral proteins.

“The synthetic biology group at Western has been developing genetic tools for algae that are proving their utility,” explained Dave Edgell, co-principal investigator.

The funding has enabled the team to significantly speed up the production process, with test kits expected on the market in a couple of months, said Martin Flatley, Suncor senior staff engineer.

“We already had the equipment, expertise and access to the Western bio-safety lab. We thought, ‘How can we use what we developed together to fight COVID-19?” Flatley said.