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Large-Scale Antibody Screening Device in Development

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, responsible for Covid-19 infections (NIH.gov)

3 June 2020. A system to quickly screen for human antibodies that neutralize SARS-CoV-2 or other infectious viruses is being developed at Texas A&M University. The one-year project is a joint undertaking of the university’s medical and engineering colleges, and funded by $200,000 award from National Science Foundation.

The system called Prescient — short for Platform for the Rapid Evaluation of antibody SucCess using Integrated microfluidics ENabled Technology — aims to quickly identify neutralizing antibodies in blood samples that prevent the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from causing Covid-19 infections. The technology can also be adapted to find antibodies active against other disease-causing viruses. Current antibody screening devices, say the Texas A&M researchers, can test only small parts of the antibody population at any time, making the process expensive as well as time and labor intensive.

Prescient is led by microbiologist Paul de Figueiredo and biomedical engineering professor Arum Han, with other medical and veterinary school faculty. The team plans to build a microfluidics, or lab-on-a-chip platform that can analyze individual B-cells in the immune system for neutralizing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. B-cells are white blood cells in the immune system that produce antibodies.

Prescient is designed to screen serum from blood samples and test individual B-cells for chemical reactions against antigens indicating the presence of neutralizing antibodies, in this case for SARS-CoV-2. The system will specifically target surface proteins on the virus’s spike, the part of the virus that penetrates cells and causes infections, testing B-cells for their ability to neutralize spike protein in minute quantities in tiny bioreactors.

As Han describes in a university statement, the device “utilizes droplet microfluidics technology, where millions of such pico-liter-volume bioreactors, each containing unique antibody-producing cells, are generated and each of the cells in the pico-liter bioreactors are tested one at a time to assess whether they produce antibodies that can prevent infection.”

The researchers expect to build a working high-speed Prescient system that processes and reports hundreds of these tests per second, with fluorescent indicators and digital read-outs. The team plans to demonstrate the system with blood serum from lab mice inoculated with SARS-CoV-2 antigens.

The researchers say they already built a working prototype with hepatitis viruses, a different family of coronavirus, showing the system can detect neutralizing antibodies against the target viruses in the minute pico-liter volumes planned for the SARS-CoV-2 system. And the team submitted its findings to the journal Lab on a Chip for publication in an upcoming issue.

National Science Foundation awarded the funds under its Rapid Response Research program that provides up to $200,000 for projects of up to one year to support technologies for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

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