Suncor, Western University, and Mitacs partner to quickly develop better COVID-19 testing

London, ON and Calgary, AB — Mitacs is helping businesses fast-track solutions to combat COVID-19, and Suncor is the first industry partner to take advantage of the expedited approval process from application to completion.

Building on an existing relationship with Mitacs, Suncor has provided additional funding, equipment, and expertise in hopes of developing a fast and affordable COVID-19 home antibody test kit by using technology from their wastewater treatment research.

Martin Flatley, a senior project manager from the Suncor Sarnia refinery, is working with Mitacs researchers Daniel Giguere and Sam Slattery — both PhD candidates at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry — and their professors Gregory Gloor, David Edgell, and Bogumil Karas to develop and test the kits, and then apply for government approval.

“When sequencing RNA or DNA — be it human, bacteria, or virus — all the procedures are very similar,” says Flatley. “We’ve been using software and hardware to sequence bacteria found in our process water as well as the genes that produce proteins to assist in breaking down contaminants. We’re hopeful that we could use the same process in a test kit.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Suncor was working with Western University to determine pathways that bacteria use to break down contaminants — in this case, naphthenic acid, which is an unwanted product in the company’s wastewater treatment process.

What’s unique about the COVID-19 work is that it uses algae to produce a protein that can be applied to determine a positive/negative result for COVID-19 antibodies. Most of the other tests currently being developed rely on using insect and mammal cells, or yeast, to produce the protein, which are much more expensive and difficult to scale.

“We already had the equipment, expertise, and access to Western University’s bio-safety lab, so we thought ‘how can we use what we developed together to help fight COVID-19?’,” Flatley explains. Calling the Western University researchers “the best in their field,” he says that the Mitacs funding has enabled the team to speed up the production process, with the testing of the kits expected in a few months.

“It’s a great feeling knowing that we’re able to repurpose our work to support our communities in these unprecedented times,” Flatley says.

Giguere adds: “We are using microalgae that show a lot of promise for not only producing the protein needed, but producing it with the correct modifications to mimic how it’s made in humans.”

“We are leveraging our in-house expertise and technology to rapidly produce the proteins and validate their effectiveness as a testing reagent,” Slattery says.

And according to Mitacs CEO and Scientific Director John Hepburn, “Mitacs is pleased to partner with Suncor and Western University to expedite the development of this important COVID-19 testing. We are extremely proud to support life-saving, global health solutions. Mitacs works together with the best academic institutions across the country to solve important challenges with research solutions.”

For Mitacs news, including the following COVID-19-related releases:

  • Thanks to $40M from Government of Canada, Mitacs proudly supports post-secondary students during COVID-19
  • Mitacs and NSERC partnering to rapidly fund innovation for COVID-19 solutions
  • Getting research talent to companies faster: new industrial postdoctoral funding to address COVID-19
  • Mitacs and AGE-WELL collaborate to fund innovation supporting seniors during COVID-19
  • College interns primed to accelerate Mitacs COVID-19 research projects
  • Mitacs links companies, organizations, networks, researchers for COVID-19 solutions

For Mitacs impact stories, including the following COVID-19-related stories:

  • Research intern key to company’s COVID-19 pivot
  • Intern works to advance global health and COVID-19 solutions

Quick facts about Mitacs:

  • Mitacs is a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
  • Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, and the Government of Saskatchewan.