Tracking COVID-19 antibodies

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Made-in-Canada aPProaCh to traCking CoVid-19 antibodieS

Breakthrough Research

With every quiet pass of the robotic arm in a research lab at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) in downtown Toronto, more questions about COVID-19 are being answered.

The robot whizzes away, quickly sampling 384 wells on 15 different plates in a single instrument run, with each tiny well measuring antibodies from a diluted blood sample. It doesn’t matter if the person acquired antibodies through natural infection, vaccination, or both — the robotic system has been designed to catch it all.

The assay was developed and validated by a team of scientists from across Canada, with senior investigator Dr. Anne-Claude Gingras taking a leading role. An assay is an investigative procedure done in a laboratory for measuring the presence of something in a test sample, like antibodies in blood.

Since its development in early 2020, the assay has been used to process more than 150,000 unique samples for more than 30 different studies across Canada.

“Throughout the pandemic, antibody testing has been instrumental for detecting previous exposures and analyzing vaccine-elicited immune responses,” said Dr. Gingras. “We’ve been able to prove our assay is a scalable serology solution that is highly accurate in discriminating between natural infection- and vaccination-induced responses.”

In the two years that followed the assay’s development, the team has not only helped answer critical questions surrounding immunity and COVID-19, but has provided critical data needed for public health decisions around immunization timing and frequency.

The assay helped produce insight on infection rates in the general population and higher risk cohorts such as health-care workers and measured how high-risk groups respond to vaccinations, including residents of Ontario’s long-term care facilities, aging adults and immunocompromised individuals. These surveys have helped prioritize specific groups for additional doses of the vaccine based on their antibody responses.

“Our assay’s success is really a testament to all the scientists who were so eager to help,” said Dr. Karen Colwill, manager of the Network Biology Collaborative Centre at the LTRI, where the robotics equipment is located. “This is just a wonderful example of what you can build when you bring strong resources and minds from across the country together.”

Funding for initial assay development in the Gingras lab was provided through generous donations from the Royal Bank of Canada and the Krembil Foundation.

Tracking COVID-19 antibodies
Tracking COVID-19 antibodies