Masahiro Niikura (left) and Ralph Pantophlet’s (right) COVID-19 projects have both received significant funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s $28 million support fund.

FHS researchers awarded exceptional opportunities fund for COVID-19 research

December 02, 2020

Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) professors Masahiro Niikura and Ralph Pantophlet have both received significant grants for their COVID-19 research projects from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Exceptional Opportunities Fund. The grant will help them purchase equipment and instrumentation that will accelerate their COVID-19 investigations.

Niikura’s team project, Supercharging BC's SARS-CoV-2 Translational COVID-19 Research Programme to Improve Diagnostics, Prevention and Treatment, is developing a rapid, mobile diagnostic test for COVID-19 based patented technology.

With the equipment grant, they can investigate the transcription profile of individual cells in patients using single cell sequencing to reveal how each patient is immunologically responding to SARS-CoV-2 infection in more detail, and how the immune responses relate to disease severity. “COVID-19 is still mysterious in how [it spreads] between people and why only certain people develop very severe disease while [the] majority are experiencing relatively minor disease. This grant opportunity allows me to expand my collaboration with Dr. Peter Unrau [of MBB] on [viral] diagnostic methods and my long-term interest [in] how a virus causes certain disease in a host.”

Niikura’s team - including FHS professors and co-applicants Mark Brockman and Zabrina Brumme - will acquire a droplet digital PCR for nucleic acid detection, as well as equipment for single cell sequencing. The droplet digital PCR will help to accurately determine the sensitivity of their new virus detection assay, and the single cell sequencing equipment will help investigate how a patient’s immune system is responding at the single cell level.

 “With the development of this diagnostic method, as well as a small and inexpensive mobile device, we hope to give more frontline healthcare providers diagnostic testing at their clinician’s offices, or elsewhere,” says Niikura. “The availability of such a system should change the way both researchers and clinicians use antiviral drugs in acute viral infections.”

 “Antiviral drugs need timely application, as the virus replication in the infected person must be stopped early on to prevent severe clinical symptoms,” Niikura explains. “Thus, the diagnostic system we are developing should prepare the effective use of antiviral drugs on COVID-19, not to limit the spread.”

Prescribing antiviral drugs for acute infections - such as COVID-19 - requires immediate and accurate identification of causative agent, similar to being diagnosed at a physician’s office and issued a prescription. The project’s goal is a device that does not need a lab tech, specific training or expensive equipment to operate.

Pantophlet’s project, Biolayer Interferometry and Luminometry Systems to Strengthen SARS-CoV-2 Antibody Research, focuses on gaining a better understanding of how antibodies engage SARS-CoV-2. His team will use the CFI funding to acquire instrumentation for in-depth characterization of antibody interactions with the virus, in particular the so-called spike protein.

“We will use the equipment to measure in real time (a) the ability of serum antibodies and potential therapeutic antibodies to bind different SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein forms; and (b) the rate and strength at which antibodies are binding,” Pantophlet explains. “We expect our results to provide new insight into the features required for blocking infection or blunting disease [severity].”

His project is expected to inform on the extent to which antibody binding is sufficiently strong to impede virus interaction with ACE2 cell receptors. With insight from the binding studies, the team plans to conduct virus neutralization assays where they measure the ability of antibodies to block infection in lab cultures. The results will allow for correlation of binding/affinity to virus-blocking activity/concentration in biological assays.

“Our team aims to apply knowledge gained from years of nationally and internationally funded HIV research to advance understanding of antibody responses and humoral immunity to SARS-CoV-2,” he says. “We hope that our research helps to advance the work of vaccine researchers in Canada, particularly those working on coronavirus vaccines, but also other viruses of biomedical importance.”