UCI Tech Can Provide Better Understanding of COVID-19 and Vaccine Possibilities Making Waves

Thursday, April 02, 2020

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In the last several weeks, California has become one of the top U.S. states to be affected by COVID-19. The infectious disease has plagued not only the state population’s physical health, but also the economy, jobs and the social life of millions. The lack of diagnostics has been cited as one of the main reasons for the spread of the virus.

In UC Irvine (UCI) School of Medicine’s Institute for Immunology, Phil Felgner, director of the Vaccine R&D Center, and his Protein Microarray Laboratory team work tirelessly to develop their COVID-19 Coronavirus Antigen Microarray that detects antibodies against coronavirus-infected people. He cites a lack of the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that measures the virus’ nucleic acid in nasal swabs.

“Another thing that prevents us knowing how much infection there is in the population is that a lot of the people who are getting infected are either asymptomatic or they have mild symptoms. We don’t go to the doctor to be tested without symptoms, and because of the shortage of tests we only use the test on people with severe symptoms,” said Felgner.

With Felgner’s microarray test, a drop of blood from a finger stick can reveal if a person has been exposed to COVID-19. The microarray test, the size of a computer chip, holds hundreds of different types of disease proteins, such as dengue fever, malaria and now, COVID-19. The blood is put up against each of these to detect antibodies to determine the patient’s exposure to then determine a person’s antibody response.

An individual’s exposure to different types of virus and disease proteins could incur different responses, including a more virulent response in a population that has acquired a certain antibody over time.

“That could account for why older people are more susceptible to the severe symptoms because they have a more advanced and elaborate antibody response initially that can cross-react with this novel virus,” said Felgner.

This information can provide the greater understanding of the human response to the virus and provide a better possibility for a vaccine.

The team also aims to understand the protective measures the world has taken against the virus.

“We’re closing down restaurants and are asking people to do more telecommuting,” said Felgner. “Over the course of this outbreak, we’ll be able to measure how well those [tactics] are working because, if they work, then we should end up observing less antibodies in a population that is containing themselves in what we perceive a safer environment.”

Felgner has partnered with Sino Biological, a global company based in China that manufactures high-quality reagents, and has created a batch of 4,800 microarray tests to distribute in China and internationally. He is also working with the Research Translation Group at UCI Beall Applied Innovation and has submitted a provisional patent for this technology.

“Dr. Felgner has been one of Applied Innovation’s most frequent innovators, particularly in the area of developing rapid systems for detecting human antibodies against a variety of infectious agents,” said Ronnie Hanecak, senior director of licensing at Applied Innovation. “Dr. Felgner’s recent work on a coronavirus human antibody detection assay will hopefully contribute to the understanding of the human response to this virus and to the development of an effective vaccine.”

Felgner hopes to make his microarrays more widely available so much so that all it would take would be a simple snap of a cell phone camera to detect a virus. The lab has begun to use cell phone cameras to research viruses and contagious diseases. Felgner envisions cell phone cameras eventually being used by anyone anywhere, not just in a lab, to test for COVID-19. The images would be sent to the cloud where they would be analyzed and results are then sent to the provider.

“People don’t need big computers anymore. Your computer will be in the sky,” said Felgner. “All these amazing developments—the evolution of our technology, more innovation—are making the technology more accessible for the urgent needs and the greater good.”

Find out more about Felgner’s lab.

Source: UCI Beall Applied Innovation

Category: COVID-19, Healthcare, Community News, Partner News, Member News