Dr. Jie Chen demonstrates lab-on-a-chip detection device

Powerhouse researchers at the University of Alberta have joined forces to develop a handheld Lab-on-a-Chip (LOC) device for rapidly detecting COVID-19 antibodies. LOC technology involves the miniaturization and integration of components (e.g., sensors, a pump, a centrifuge, a microchip, etc.) into small, portable devices that can carry out laboratory tests whenever and wherever needed. Alberta researchers are at the forefront of advancing LOC technology and applying it to the detection of different diseases.

Project Title: Development and Clinical Validation of a Rapid Antibody Detection Device for COVID-19

Grant Amount: $304,200

Interdisciplinary Team:

  • Jie Chen, Faculty of Engineering
  • Jamil Kanji, Faculty of Medicine
  • David Wishart, Faculty of Science
  • Shawn Babiuk, Canadian Food Inspection Agency

This project funded by Alberta Innovates is led by Prof. Jie Chen. He and his team are on track to have a device prototype ready early next year that can quantify the concentration of COVID-19 antibodies in a droplet of blood quickly and accurately.

 We asked Prof. Chen to tell us about his project and why it matters.

Q: Please describe your project and the technology employed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on human health worldwide and the global economy. It is urgent to develop low-cost and rapid methods to screen people who have developed antibodies against COVID-19 (either people recovered from COVID-19 or people who had COVID-19 infection but were asymptomatic carriers).

The best identification approach probably is to perform a blood test to determine the concentration of antibodies against COVID-19 and to better understand the dynamics of the antibody immunity. The current testing methods are not portable and require professionally trained personnel to operate. Consequently, LOC devices offer an alternative solution for use in remote community settings, low/middle-income countries and in doctors' offices.

Due to their micro/nano-scale size, LOC tests only need a tiny amount of reagent (a compound used to facilitate a chemical reaction), and the devices are fully automated and portable. A glucose meter is an example of a typical LOC testing device. Over the past eight years, we have developed a LOC device that can function the same as existing tests in laboratories.

We have successfully measured extremely small amounts of fatty-acid protein in urine, as low as one nanogram per ml, within one hour. We also successfully tested for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) antibodies. The cost of each test is less than $20. In this proposal, we are going to extend and improve our existing LOC design to detect the COVID-19 antibody within 20 minutes. In addition, we are going to validate the performance of our LOC device against existing centralized tests using clinical samples and samples from an Indigenous community in northern Quebec.

Q: What do you hope to learn from this research project?

We hope to identify:

  • The potentially millions of individuals who had COVID-19 but didn't know it.
  • Those who could provide convalescent serum (COVID-19 antibodies) to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
  • Individuals with high enough COVID-19 antibody levels who would be immune to further COVID-19 infections (and, therefore, free to work without personal protection equipment).
  • Those who need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 (and those who do not).

Our LOC test could also be used to monitor individuals for appropriate responses to a COVID-19 vaccine - once it is developed.

Q: How will the knowledge gained help people?

Given the critical importance of quantitative serological testing for COVID-19 antibodies, and given the limited supplies and reagents available for developing such a test, it is essential that a made-in-Canada solution is developed quickly for population-wide screening and reduced impact on human lives and the Canadian economy.

Q:How important was the support from Alberta Innovates? What did this investment enable you to do?

The Alberta Innovates investment is critical to our COVID-19 research. The major short-term and long-term impacts are on:

  • Hospital staff - fewer health risks, less mental health stress and a better work environment.
  • Communities - maintain a standard of life, reduce the requirement for social isolation, reduced risk to businesses and an enhanced sense of security.
  • Provinces/countries - reduced risk to economies, reduced risk of collapse of health-care systems, information for better policy-making for future waves/pandemics, leadership in crisis management.

The investment also enables us to access samples collected in Alberta Precision Labs for clinical validation. Alberta Innovates funding can also accelerate the test development, Health Canada approval and commercialization. And it can attract talented students and researchers to join our team.

Q: What are your next steps and when do you expect to see any results?

We are going to extend our clinical trials to at-risk communities (Indigenous populations, recent immigrants and homeless people) and long-term care facilities that were hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic. We will work with two Alberta small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) to commercialize the technology. Q: After the prototype is ready in the new year and is tested in your clinical trials, how long will it take to be put into general use? It depends on Health Canada approval. If we go through the fast route, it can be sometime by the end of 2021 or early of 2022.