Published 2020-06-18

This post is also available in Swedish

New method of measuring coronavirus antibodies

At Uppsala University, a test method is now being developed to show whether patients have antibodies to COVID-19, combined with other immune parameters. The purpose is to be better able to predict the risks and course of the disease and thereby implement the right treatment in a timely manner.

Ulf Landegren, Professor of Molecular Medicine at Uppsala University and a member of Mistra’s Board, is leading the work of developing the new method within the framework of the PLA-based large-scale analysis of Corona virus immunity project. He explains that many interesting research projects are currently under way in the battle against COVID-19 — from vaccines to drugs and treatments.

‘Our contribution is to develop a method that tests antibodies to the virus in combination with other immune parameters. The focus isn’t on the virus itself, but on studying the body’s reactions to it. The hope is to be better able to tell which people are at higher risk of falling severely ill, and provide improved treatment prospects.’

While for some COVID-19 may seem like a cough and moderately raised temperature, for others it can become extremely serious — and rapidly. This is usually due to one of two problems: blood clots in several organs of the body and excessive activation of the immune system, ‘cytokine storms’, so strong that they damage the body and, at worst, cause death. When the virus attacks the body it harms the cells, which may also result in bacterial infections. This is why many people succumb to pneumonia. And if the bacteria enter the blood, the outcome may be sepsis. Both blood-thinning medicines and immunosuppressive treatments are being used in intensive care, Landegren says.

Large-scale analysis of antibodies

Good tests for detecting antibodies to the virus already exist, he explains. What makes his research team unique is a method of measuring the immune system on a broader front. The method rests on well-established foundations and is used by, for example, Olink Proteomics, the Uppsala company co-founded by Landegren.

The method is used to measure proteins in blood plasma, and developing it further in the current project is a matter of also being able to detect specific antibody responses, along with factors such as cytokine overproduction and possibly altered proportions of specific blood cells. From a drop of blood from a coronavirus patient, taken with a self-administered prick of the finger, the researchers can carry out a wide-ranging investigation of the patient’s immune reactions. The hope is that the risk of becoming seriously ill, and which kind of treatment may be effective, will become more predictable.

‘It’s not self-evident that our approach will work. It’s technically challenging. Another challenge is getting access to standardised samples to validate our technique.’

But are you necessarily immune if you have antibodies?

‘The consensus now is that antibodies mean you’ve become immune, but we don’t know how long the protection lasts. Earlier reports that people who have had the virus and antibodies nonetheless fell ill again haven’t proved correct,’ Landegren says.

Autumn patient tests planned

Tests for neurotransmitters in the blood already existed, and Landegren expects an initial version of the new method to be available within a month or so. The hope is to start collecting blood samples from patients in the autumn.

The project is funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. SciLifeLab (the Science for Life Laboratory at Karolinska Institute) is coordinating COVID-19 research efforts in Sweden.

‘Researchers often work individually and compete with one another. The point of the​​coordination is to put that aside and help one another. One hobbyhorse of mine is that we academics are good at finding solutions to unknown problems, but have little opportunity to take the results further so that they benefit patients, which requires close collaboration with companies. In that context, the research community may need to get better at understanding its own role in society,’ Landegren says.

He also raises the problem of funding applications being subject to the principle of public access to official records in Sweden.

‘Researchers may have an idea about how to cure COVID-19, but if they apply for funding from state research funders in Sweden to test their hypothesis, this country’s Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act may mean that the idea counts as already published. In that case, they can no longer apply for a patent for the invention, even if it proves to work in practice. That’s likely to result in no company thinking it’s worthwhile to develop and market the product even if it could have been used to cure the viral infection.’