How does the human body develop antibodies to COVID-19 during and after infection? That’s the million-dollar question (well, one of them). And it’s a question Joshua Chou and Brian Oliver are determined to answer. For the pair, who have known each other for 12 years, it’s not their first research project together. Josh, a biomedical engineer, and Brian, a respiratory expert, currently hold an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant to investigate Brillouin microscopy – a new way to measure the properties of cells. But, this is their first research project conducted (at least in part) in self-isolation.
Rewind to a pre-pandemic world
Josh's and Brian’s collaboration exemplifies UTS 2027’s connected research initiative by transcending disciplinary boundaries, and the new ways of working initiative by quickly adapting to a new, international situation and developing innovative ways of working together during this unprecedented time.
The collaboration began in March 2020. Josh explains: “My research focus is on the development of biomedical tools, and I saw, with coronavirus, that we have a great opportunity to apply cutting-edge diagnostic technology to the current crisis. Knowing that Brian is an expert in respiratory diseases and has the established networks in that area, I thought it was natural for us to get together.”
So, how did they do it?
After exchanging a few emails, the pair met (safely socially distanced, of course) on the Alumni Green at UTS. While brainstorming possible government grants they could apply for, and talking about the current social restrictions, the duo realised the key questions that still needed to be answered were: How many people have been infected? Who possesses immunity? And, how long does immunity last?
For Josh and Brian, it wasn’t so much an ‘ah ha’ moment; more a joint realisation that the biggest issue facing COVID-19 research of this kind is the reliability of results. Josh explains: “Because of the ways studies into how antibodies are developed and the duration they stay in the body have been executed, that is quickly and without a rigorous framework, and the ‘unreliability’ of some of the diagnostic tools used, there have been a lot of discrepancies in results amongst the scientific community.
“What Brian and I are doing is using a new diagnostic technology to bring together a collective of experts and expertise to solve this challenging and unprecedented pandemic.”
One of many projects
Of course, Josh and Brian, are just two of many UTS researchers who have paused their current research projects to work on COVID-19. Other research projects already underway include the development of a device to test the COVID-19 viral load of asymptomatic patients and the development of structures that can be quickly erected to serve as clinics or COVID-19 testing centres.
Understanding COVID-19 antibodies
But Josh says his and Brian’s aim is “to really understand what’s happening to the body.”
Right now, explains Brian, “we really lack understanding of how a disease develops and how patients recover, including which antibodies are created and how many of them are required for a person to develop immunity. Understanding these factors will have significant economic and social impact.”
“The COVID-19 rapid antibody test that we’re planning to use, or point-of-care-test (POCT) as it’s known,” adds Josh, “is the only approach in which we can find out this information by doing a scientifically rigourous study on a large scale, both economically and at speed. This is something that hasn’t yet been done by COVID researchers in Australia, but it’s critical to understand, by testing real people, which antibodies are actually protecting the individual from COVID-19, and, in my opinion, my research team has the world’s best diagnostic tool to do this,” says Josh.
The quantitative test
So, what is the POCT? Josh says, “It’s essentially a finger prick test. You get two drops of blood and put them into the test and after 10 minutes the results come up, just like a pregnancy test. The innovative part about this test is that it’s a handheld device which is capable of measuring a person’s antibody concentration without the need for large laboratory instruments, but while still offering a similar level of specificity and sensitivity. That means, moving forward, as the economy reopens this device will help in identifying antibody levels in people.”
Right now, Josh, Brian and a team of biomedical engineering students, are working with NSW Health, the Australia National Research Laboratory (a World Health Organization-recognised laboratory with access to a variety of international COVID-19 samples) and industry partners to set up the study. Their aim is to enrol 5000 frontline health workers who they can test every week for three months to see if they’ve developed antibodies, immunity or find out if they’ve been re-infected. “Critically,” says Josh, “this will help us identify and differentiate between those people who are symptomatic and asymptomatic so we can track the coronavirus pandemic and identify emerging hot spots as the economy reopens in NSW.”
They will then use these results to estimate how many people have been exposed, and if they test people who had COVID-19, they will be able to estimate if long-lasting immunity occurs. By understanding and identifying how people develop immunity to COVID-19, Brian and Josh hope their work will be able to help other researchers working on developing a vaccine.
The realities of working on-campus
Though Josh is the first to admit that right now working on campus isn’t always easy, there are some perks. “There’s definitely fewer people around, which is actually quite nice, and I can really appreciate the architecture and the environment of UTS. As for the lab, it means we have more access to equipment and facilities that would otherwise be busy.
“It’s a big time-saver when it comes to running tests on the POCT or discussing the finer details about how we’re going to run the project,” says Josh. “Plus, I’m still working on a number of existing and exciting projects, including my Charlie Teo Fellowship Award ‘brain tumour-on-a-chip’ project and a microgravity device – which we’ll soon be launching in space – that, in our lab trials, killed four types of cancer without the use of drugs.”
Josh continues, “I think one of the key attributes of scientists is that we are able to adapt fast to our situation. While COVID-19 has disrupted our ‘normal’ workflow, I think coming out of this, our team is actually more robust, agile and even closer as we’ve been able to bond more during the crisis.”
Dr Joshua Chou works in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology as a senior lecturer in the School of Biomedical Engineering. Professor Brian Oliver works in the Faculty of Science as Associate Head of School (Research), School of Life Sciences.