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Alberta start-ups lead the way in COVID-19 testing and treatment

Nanotechnology boosts domestic supply for COVID-19 testing
Stacey Hume, associate professor at the U of A and geneticist with Alberta Precision Laboratories helped create a Canadian-made supply of COVID-19 tests. Photo supplied by Stacey Hume.

University of Alberta associate professor Stacey Hume was aware back in March of the need for a domestic supply of COVID-19 test kits. Her insight lead to a valuable made-in-Alberta contribution to the country’s testing capacity. 

Hume's lab started testing for COVID-19 in early spring, when it became apparent there was a need to ramp up.

“Companies couldn’t scale up that fast,” said Hume, who also works as a geneticist with Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL). 

The most accurate test involves placing a patient’s swab in a viral medium and then breaking open the virus to obtain the genetic material inside. Nano-sized magnetic beads are added that combine with the genetic material, leaving a purified genetic sample once the viral envelope is washed away.  Creating this 'reagent' is a key step in identifying whether someone is infected.

Hume said that while there's another testing method that looks for the outer part of the virus, a test is more sensitive when it detects the genetic material. "That's the gold standard; the most sensitive test for COVID-19."

The reagent is in limited quantities, explained Hume, so when she became aware the government was looking for in-house production of it, she thought "we can probably do this."

Made in Alberta solution

Hume reached out to the U of A’s chemical engineering department, which then turned to Applied Quantum Materials (AQM) a U of A spin-off nanotechnology company.

Jon Veinot, U of A professor and co-founder of AQM, said while academic labs were closed, the team was able to manufacture sufficient quantities of the magnetic nano-particles in short order. "It was about eight months from conceptual idea to a product," said Veinot.

“Never have we designed, researched, tested and validated a product for clinical use this fast--one that's even more sensitive than we're getting from commercial companies. It typically takes years,” said Hume. "It's because of the tight integration of Alberta's health care system, academia and industry."

In June, the National Research Council said Canadian dependence on foreign suppliers for COVID-19 testing materials was a major reason for shortages. It asked Canadian researchers to ramp up domestic production of the needed reagent.

"Having a made-in-Alberta--and better quality--product secures an immediate and constant supply, and we can scale up to provide all of Canada's needs," said Hume.

AQM is now providing extraction kits to the provincial lab for Alberta's testing program. 

Apelin promising treatment for COVID-19

To date, hospitalized COVID-19 patients may only be receiving supportive care like external oxygen and monitored vital signs. Preventive measures consist of wearing mask and gloves, hand washing and the now-unrolling vaccines.

Dr. Gavin Oudit, a clinical scientist and cardiologist at the U of A's Faculty of Medicine, is excited by his team's discovery of a link between the peptide apelin and a reduction of abdominal aortic aneurysms. Though intended for use in patients with cardiovascular disease, that link has potential for assisting those with COVID-19 too.

Apelin is important for reducing atherosclerosis and thrombosis – the formation of blood clot in a blood vessel – among other conditions. 

“Apelin improves the heart and lung, and vascular and kidney functioning, and these are all impacted by COVID-19," said Oudit. “We call apelin the insulin of the cardiovascular system."

Enhanced apelin functioning can help protect people with cardiovascular disease boost the body's natural defenses, said Oudit. That offers a potential weapon for treating COVID-19.

Dr. Oudit’s team has completed pharmaco-kinetic and toxicology testing, and is now working with a commercial supplier and awaiting FDA approval to be able to launch a trial of the product with COVID-19 patients, under the name Pearko Therapeutics.

“We hope to get it to a phase one trial by this summer or fall,” said Oudit.