Researchers at a community college in Sarnia are working on five projects in the fight against COVID-19, everything from using microscopic algae try to help detect the virus to trying to replicate it in the race to find a vaccine.
The priority for Lambton College is a Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council of Canada-funded project that involves growing DNA in a lab to help efforts to create a COVID-19 vaccine.
The DNA, grown from E.coli using fermentation equipment before being extracted and purified, is then sent to Toronto-based Mediphage Bioceuticals, where it’s used to create virus-like particles meant to simulate COVID-19 and trigger an immune response in people, said Stephen Reaume, the college’s associate direction of research operations.
“The idea is you can actually grow the DNA you need to create any virus-like particle,” Reaume said. “You just need a base DNA structure and you could turn that into growing other vaccines as well, but we’re focused on COVID-19 right now.
Initially, college researchers were using the process to develop potential treatments for degenerative eye diseases, but the work was adapted for the vaccine project, he said.
Other researchers at the Sarnia school have been growing microalgae to produce spike proteins – spike-shaped proteins used to “dock” onto other cells – intended to detect COVID-19 antibodies in people who have, or had, the disease.
Normally, the spike proteins that COVID-19 antibodies stick to are expense and slow to produce using mammalian cells, Reaume said.
“Our goal is to produce them from a high-productivity algae that would produce these spike proteins, so you could produce significantly more volumes of them to get out more and more testing to help with virus tracking.”
The 12-month project, which started around June, may be extended for a second year since more funding has come in, he said. Another $50,000 in federal funding was announced for the Lambton projects Friday, said research and innovation dean Mehdi Sheikhzadeh.
The spike protein project, Reaume said, is “very promising.”
Lambton researchers are refining the process before growing enough material to provide for large-scale production at Markham-based Pond Technologies, he said.
“They’re going to grow the algae in their 10,000-litre reactors to significantly grow more spike protein,” he said, noting the college has successfully grown and extracted proteins at the five-litre level.
“We’ve already sent (Pond Tech) samples for analysis, so it should start within the next couple of months,” he said about next steps.
The college has also been involved in producing beer-derived hand sanitizer with a Sarnia-based brewery. The beer the Refined Fool Brewing Co. would normally dump has been distilled and turned into sanitizer at the college, before being bottled and distributed to Sarnia health-care organizations since March.
So far, the college has helped produce about 50 litres of the sanitizer, boosted by funding from the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation.
College researchers were also part of a project to improve the intake portal for Link2Feed, a developer of food bank software, after the app experienced crashes earlier in the year due to a COVID-prompted surge in demand.
“They wanted to optimize their intake portal and their system to handle the increased volume” Reaume said.
Lambton College offered that help and the fix was complete by August, he said.
So far, more than $400,000 has gone towards the vaccine, spike protein, hand sanitizer, cap and seal and food bank software projects, Reaume said.
Another application was also made Thursday for Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council funding to produce hand sanitizer and moisturizer, Sheikhzadeh said.
The Sarnia college is trying to do its part to help in the fight against COVID-19, he added, noting there are many studies and projects like these around the world.
“We want to play a role,” he said.