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25th July 2020

Science Coronavirus in Scotland: Efforts to develop ‘sophisticated’ antibody test

Science Coronavirus in Scotland: Efforts to develop ‘sophisticated’ antibody test

Science

science Edinburgh University's Foundry lab

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The test is being developed at Edinburgh University’s Foundry lab

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh are hoping to create an antibody test which shows how likely you are to get coronavirus twice.

They expect it to be ready before a potential second wave of Covid-19 later in the year.

The experts say, like existing tests, it could tell patients if they have already had the virus.

But it could also tell them how their body had reacted and how badly they might get it in the future.

So far, antibody testing in Scotland has estimated that about 4% of the population have had coronavirus.

But Interim Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gregor Smith, said there was insufficient evidence about how much protection antibodies give or how long immunity lasts.

Edinburgh researchers are working with the NHS to devise a more “sophisticated” test.

It should give details on how your body reacted to the virus and how it would react if you came into contact with the virus again.

This could vary from having full immunity, to unknowingly being a so-called “super-spreader” or getting it so badly you are likely to need hospital treatment.

This information could help the NHS plan.

The researchers say our immune system is made up of different layers.

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Prof Yanick Crow said there were different antibodies produced

Professor of Genomic medicine, Yanick Crow, explains that we have T cells and B cells. B cells make antibodies and there is more than one type of antibody.

“It is quite possible an individual exposed to the same virus can respond differently in terms of their immune response,” Prof Crow said.

“Different types of antibodies will have different effects on the virus.”

The research is under way at Edinburgh University’s Foundry lab where they have enlisted the help of three robots to work round the clock in a race to get the tests ready in the next three months.

The scientists describe the set-up as the most sophisticated molecular biology system of its kind in the world.

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Professor of synthetic biology, Susan Rosser, says the robotic system is vital

Professor of synthetic biology, Susan Rosser, says the robotic system is vital in their attempts to find out more about how the virus is affecting our bodies.

“It can do experiments really quickly, it can do them really accurately, far more accurate than a human can do them – and it can work 24/7,” she said.

“So we can have science going on in this lab all day and all night and there is no need for people to be in here.

“Instead of it taking six months to put together, we can do it in a month.”

Image copyright
AFP

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Professor of molecular biology, Nick Gilbert, is leading the team

Professor of molecular biology, Nick Gilbert, is leading the team trying to get a more detailed test ready before a potential second wave of the virus.

He said: “Most of the antibody tests just give you very simple yes/no answers and tell you whether you have had the virus before.

“What we are doing here is developing a more sophisticated antibody test which we can actually use prognostically.

“That means we can use the information to better tell patients how their bodies are going to actually respond to the coronavirus in future.”

The scientists are collaborating with the NHS in Scotland.

The NHS will provide the patients’ blood samples for testing. The results will be specific to each individual but can also help the health service plan ahead.

They hope their work can also help test the effectiveness of vaccines and could also provide the basis for immunity passports, if that is to be considered in the future.

Prof Crow said: “People have been talking about these immune passports, where we would be able to say a person has had the disease already and produced a good response to the virus and that they are no longer at risk, despite the fact that they might come in to contact with the virus.

“This test could help with identifying those people and whether or not they have developed an adequate enough immune response.”

This work is part of the scientific effort which is preparing us to live with coronavirus and helping us to predict what it will do to us next.

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