Vital COVID-19 Research Underway in
New Brunswick

Laura Richard

Dr. Laura Richard, D.Phil (Oxon)

Director of Research

COVID-19 has upended New Brunswick and the world. It has sickened millions, killed many, and wreaked economic havoc. Understanding who has been exposed to the virus but recovered is crucial knowledge for researchers around the globe. Researchers need a steady supply of purified coronavirus proteins, knows as antigens, to gain this knowledge and carry out the research.

Many of us are now familiar with the 3D image of the COVID-19 virus, a grey and red sphere surrounded by spikes that stick out from the surface. These spikes, known as spike proteins, play a crucial role in how this virus infects a human cell and how the human immune system responds to the virus. The University of New Brunswick’s Dr. Shawn MacLellan, Dr. Michael Duffy, and Dr. Aurora Nedelcu are undertaking a project that will develop a process for producing and purifying coronavirus protein antigens and making them broadly available for research and development purposes.

Dr. MacLellan tells us that “one important feature of the spike protein antigen is that it is adorned with unusual sugar molecules that are attached when the protein is produced in an infected cell. As a consequence, the production process they are developing requires that the protein be synthesized in special mammalian cells.”

Their research project, funded through the NBIF and NBHRF’s COVID-19 Research Fund, will use these mammalian cells as tiny antigen production factories. That requires expertise and facilities not found in many laboratories. After the protein is produced, it must also be purified away from all other cellular constituents, and this process also requires specialized expertise and equipment.

The coronavirus protein antigens produced by these UNB researchers will be used primarily for COVID-19 research and development efforts, including developing strategies to test for antibodies in community members that have previously been infected.

Why is this so important, you may ask?

As an example, health care personnel need to know their immunity status; it will help alleviate the psychological stresses associated with working in primary care environments that can expose them to the virus. Understanding what fraction of the population is already carrying protective antibodies and may be immune to further infection helps medical authorities and policymakers’ model future infection patterns.

The COVID-19 pandemic drives this research project, but the knowledge it uncovers will help New Brunswick, and potentially the entire country prepare for future novel coronaviruses and how to best model herd immunity among populations.

It’s difficult, complicated work with global impact. And we couldn’t be prouder that it’s happening right here in New Brunswick.

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