Suncor devising COVID-19 home testing kits
April 29, 2020
SARNIA, Ont. – Suncor is repurposing equipment and expertise, and applying technology used in its wastewater treatment research, to develop a fast and affordable COVID-19 home antibody test kit.
Supported by national innovation organization Mitacs – which is helping businesses fast-track solutions to combat COVID-19 – Martin Flatley (pictured), 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, to develop, test and apply for government approval of the kits.
What does wastewater treatment have in common with testing for COVID-19? It turns out, quite a lot! “When sequencing RNA or DNA be it human, bacteria or virus, all the procedures are very similar,” Flatley said. “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 for use in a test kit.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Suncor was working with Western University to determine metabolic 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 it uses algae to produce a protein that will be used in the test kit. The kit will be used to determine a positive/negative result to determine if a person has COVID-19 antibodies. Other tests currently being developed by different groups rely on using insect and mammal cells, or yeast, to produce the protein, which are 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 use what we developed together to help fight COVID-19?’” Flatley explained. Calling the Western University researchers “the best in their field,” he said that the Mitacs funding and expertise have 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 said.
“While we continue to focus on our core operations and established programs, Mitacs is committed to doing our part during this global crisis,” said John Hepburn, CEO and scientific director of Mitacs. “It is our hope that this initiative will give companies the support needed to provide highly needed solutions at this unprecedented time.”
To learn more about Mitacs’ fast-tracked support for businesses developing solutions related to COVID-19, visit www.mitacs.ca.