New Brunswick Telegraph: Suncor research being used to develop antibody test

Energy giant Suncor is joining the fight against COVID-19 by putting technology currently employed in its wastewater treatment processes to use with the aim of developing an at-home antibody test kit.

The project — a partnership between the Calgary-based energy company and scientists at the University of Western Ontario — aims to use equipment and expertise already being used to sequence the DNA of bacteria found in Suncor’s process water.

Martin Flatley — a biochemical engineer based at the company’s Sarnia, Ont., refinery — said it’s not a huge leap to go from a wastewater treatment application to COVID-19 antibody testing, as the DNA sequencing technology is the same. The research team is using a type of algae that shows a lot of promise for not only producing the protein needed for antibody testing, but producing it with the correct modifications to mimic how it’s made in humans.

Flatley added that while other research labs around the globe are using mammalian or insect cells to try to develop a reliable test for coronavirus antibodies, the Suncor team’s algae cells are far less expensive and easier to scale.

“The sequencing, whether it’s human genome or bacteria or algae or insects, it’s all the same,” Flatley said.

“So I knew there was an application there. And algae is cheaper, you can grow it anywhere.”

Suncor has received additional funding for the project from Mitacs, a non-profit national research organization that partners with Canadian academia and private businesses to advance industrial innovation. Businesses have long been able to apply to Mitacs to get matched with research or production-focused interns at post-secondary institutions to help advance or commercialize new ideas. However, the organization’s new COVID-19-specific program means that Canadian businesses working on products related to fighting the virus can also receive an additional $11,500 per hired intern to subsidize their wages.

“The Suncor example is a typical example,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn. “Suncor was developing this testing technology for wastewater treatment — it had nothing to do with COVID-19. But they recognized the same technology could be used to develop an antibody test with minor modifications to their basic process.”

Hepburn added small and mid-sized companies are also eligible for the Mitacs program, and applications are being received on an ongoing basis.

“We’re asking other businesses, ‘with some injection of money and talent, can you try a new process? Can you try a new innovation or product to help fight COVID-19?’ ” he said.

Flatley said the Mitacs funding has enabled his research team to speed up the production process, with the testing of the kits expected within a few months. The team will also need to pursue all necessary government approvals before it can commercialize the final product.

“We’re excited to lend support and technical expertise along with other Canadians to fight (COVID-19),” Flatley said. “It has to be done, it’s the thing to do and it’s just very important — not only for Suncor but for society.