University of Victoria plant biologist Peter Constabel is part of the team testing spike proteins produced by a relative of the tobacco plant. The proteins could be used for COVID-19 antibody test kits. (Courtesy of UVic)

University of Victoria plant biologist Peter Constabel is part of the team testing spike proteins produced by a relative of the tobacco plant. The proteins could be used for COVID-19 antibody test kits. (Courtesy of UVic)

University of Victoria scientists study plants for use in COVID-19 antibody tests

Relative of the tobacco plant can quickly produce virus proteins

  • Aug. 22, 2020 12:00 a.m.

A small group of Victoria researchers is harnessing the power of plants to aid in the fight against COVID-19.

University of Victoria plant biologist Peter Constabel and UVic biochemist Alisdair Boraston are using Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant, to produce a spike protein that can be tricked into producing virus proteins similar to those of the COVID-19 virus.

Why that plant? It’s “unusual and fascinating superpower” is the ability to quickly produce virus proteins.

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Researchers can insert coronavirus genes into it, which will then produce the virus’s proteins as it grows. Those spike proteins can be extracted and used for serology – or antibody – tests, which can detect if a person has already had COVID-19.

“If successful, this will allow for a much cheaper and more efficient source of COVID-19 spike protein,” said Peter Constabel, UVic plant biologist. “It could dramatically accelerate the production of antibody tests in Canada.”

Once the spike protein is produced, B.C. health technology companies bioLytical Laboratories and ImmunoPrecise Antibodies will test it to see if the plant can effectively be used for antibody testing.


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