A University of Malta study measuring the antibodies generated by COVID-19 patients has just secured €658,972 in funding through the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) and Malta Enterprise (ME).
Results from the Cov-Plex study, which will span over the next 12 months, will be vital for vaccine surveillance in the Maltese population, as it will generate knowledge towards the understanding of the efficacy of the available vaccines while better understanding the immune response being developed by the population.
Prof. Godfrey Grech, a member of the Department of Pathology within the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, will be leading the study alongside Prof. Christian Scerri from the Department of Physiology & Biochemistry within the same Faculty.
“Interest has grown in antibody testing to measure the spread of the virus and study the immune response. The output of this study will provide the basis for the development of a rapid multiplex assay to measure neutralising antibodies – knowledge that is immensely useful for scientists to further study the unique cohorts we will provide, as well as for the authorities in their vaccination strategy”, said Prof. Grech.
Similarly to other infections, COVID-19 elicits an expansion of the human’s B-cells that target the virions. The selection of these B-Cells depends on somatic hypermutations of their receptor, resulting in the generation of antibodies that target the viral antigen.
The antigen sequence, which is coded by what is a called an RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequence, determines one’s affinity to the antibody. The study will read and sequence the various RNA transcripts generated by the human B-cells as a response to SARS-CoV-2 infection.
By giving a snapshot picture of someone’s reaction to the virus and its evolution over time, there is huge potential in predicting the outcome of the disease in the individuals studied, identifying patients who might require hospitalisation and their treatment earlier on, and arriving towards a rapid COVID-19 test that has a lower rate of false negatives with better specificity.
The research, which kicked off in January 2021, will utilise state-of-the-art equipment available at the Institute of Molecular Medicine & Biobanking, and shall include cutting-edge technologies in molecular diagnostics, RNA sequencing platforms and multiplex technologies that have been optimised by the research team of Prof. Godfrey Grech.
The project also includes the development of a test kit by the industrial partner, Omnigene Medical Technologies Ltd, to translate findings to public health surveillance programmes.
Thanks to the researchers’ collaboration with the National Transfusion Services Centre, as well as other public bodies, the outcome of this project will start being delivered in around 10 months’ time.