New funding for the development of ‘pregnancy style’ tests

The University of Aberdeen and Aberdeen-based biologics company, Elasmogen Limited in collaboration with other partners are working to develop ‘pregnancy style’ tests for COVID-19 which could give a result within half an hour.

The project is part of the University’s portfolio of projects funded within a £5million rapid response research scheme funded by the Scottish Government which aims to harness Scottish expertise to fight the virus.

The Aberdeen-led team brings in expertise from the University’s Scottish Biologics Facility (SBF) which works with academics and companies across the world developing antibodies, along with Elasmogen’s capability in developing biologics - biological medicines that are made using proteins or other substances produced by the body.

Other partners in the project, awarded a total of £223,676, include MRC, University of Dundee and the University of Minnesota. Both are supplying small quantities of proteins that decorate the Covid-19 viral surface and are needed to allow the research to progress quickly.

Elasmogen’s current commercial focus uses humanised versions of antibody-like proteins found in sharks to develop drugs to treat cancer and tackle auto-immune diseases. The power of this drug discovery platform will now be refocussed on Covid-19.

Elasmogen chief executive, Dr Caroline Barelle, who is also an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, said: “Current diagnostic testing for COVID-19 - so called RT-PCR for infectious agents – is accurate but complex to perform.

“It requires centralised laboratories, typically takes between four and 24 hours to complete and requires shipment of clinical samples from drive through and other collection centres.

“Point-of-care (PoC) or bedside tests are urgently needed to accelerate clinical decision-making and reduce the workload of test laboratories.”

Researchers will utilise drug discovery processes that have proved successful in cancer therapy to create next generation diagnostics which can be carried out at the point of care. Their ultimate goal is to deliver a pregnancy-like dip test which can deliver results from just a few drops of blood from a finger prick, within 30 min.

Elasmogen will re-position its biologics libraries, which contains over 100 billion different antibody-like soloMERs, from drug to diagnostic discovery. Elasmogen usually goes hunting in its drug library for molecules that recognise and neutralise cancer cells. It will now use this same approach to find soloMERs that recognise Covid-19 virus and in particular the external “spike” protein we have all become so familiar with.

The Aberdeen company has also developed improvements to natural monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) found in many traditional diagnostic test kits, by increasing the number of binding sites per molecule from the normal two to four. These so-called QUAD X formats increase diagnostic sensitivity by a factor of 10 and so could play an important role in the development of a dip-stick style test for COVID-19.

Professor Andy Porter, director of the Scottish Biologics Facility at the University of Aberdeen said: “Elasmogen’s success in therapeutic drug discovery requires the exquisite recognition of a drug target to effect therapy. In this project we are using that same ability to specifically recognise a molecular target but instead of a cancer cell it is the spike proteins outside of the Covid-19 virus. Working with a range of partners we will then format not for injection of drugs but as a pregnancy type test for diagnosis of viral infection.

Dr Barelle added: “The Elasmogen team are delighted to be given the opportunity to deploy our soloMER technology platform to develop specific diagnostics against COVID-19 and are proud to be contributing to the global life sciences effort tackling this pandemic by working together with colleagues in Universities and other companies”.

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