/COVID-19: How a new blood test could help speed up vaccine development and population screening

COVID-19: How a new blood test could help speed up vaccine development and population screening

In an interview with Medical News Today, James Hindley, Ph.D., from Indoor Biotechnologies explains how his company is developing a new T cell test during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also reveals why this test is a much-needed tool for those designing new vaccines and studying immune responses to the new coronavirus.

James Hindley, Ph.D working with another scientist in a labShare on Pinterest
James Hindley, Ph.D. (pictured standing) is part of a group developing a new T cell test.
Image credit: James Hindley, Ph.D.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, scientists across disciplines and geographical locations have collaborated in unprecedented ways.

The speed at which diagnostic tests went from conception to reality was astounding, as were the global efforts to test new and repurposed drugs to find treatments for those with the disease.

However, effective treatments are only tentatively emerging. Diagnostic testing capabilities have been slow to ramp up to the scales needed to keep the pandemic at bay.

Many questions remain about how the virus causes catastrophic deterioration in some but leaves many others relatively unscathed.

Undeterred, investigators continue to research and develop new arsenals in this global fight.

Medical News Today spoke to one such scientist, who recently began a new project with a grant from the British government’s Innovate UK fund.

James Hindley, Ph.D., is the Executive Director at Indoor Biotechnologies in Cardiff in Wales, and the work is underway in collaboration with Martin Scurr, Ph.D., a research associate at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine.

Working with the team at Indoor Biotechnologies, Dr. Hindley and Dr. Scurr are developing a new type of test that can show if someone has developed specific T cells to SARS-CoV-2.

T cells are a type of white blood cell. They play a key role in how our bodies fight off viral pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus.

MNT: Why is there a need to develop a new T cell test?

Dr. James Hindley: The current focus for testing immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus is based on the assessment of antibodies.

These are an undoubtedly important part of our memory immune response to viruses. However, another critical component of our immune response to viruses is the T cell. These also provide memory immune responses and may even be more sensitive than antibodies.

The challenge with T cells is that, unlike antibodies, measuring them is not simple.

As such, there is a need for a simple T cell test, that could enable testing for virus-specific T cells to be done routinely.

MNT: What will the test results show?

Dr. Hindley: The test we have developed can provide quantitative results measuring the magnitude of an individual’s T cell response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

We can also run in parallel the same test for other human coronaviruses and viruses, such as influenza. This allows us to establish a person’s immune status. Like antibodies, whether a positive T cell test is protective against future infection remains to be determined.

MNT: Who will benefit from your test, and who can administer it?

Dr. Hindley: At first, we believe the primary use of this test will be for vaccine development, to determine whether a T cell response to the vaccine has been generated and whether that is adequate to be protective from infection.

Such testing would be done in laboratories, alongside other tests needed for the vaccine trial.

We also believe this test will enable public health bodies to perform much wider screenings of the population. Again, this would be carried out by laboratories in conjunction with antibody testing to determine what constitutes protective immunity.

Once this is proven, the assessment could then be made available to the wider public, but it is likely to remain as a test performed in a laboratory.

MNT: Are there other tests available, and how is yours different from these?

Dr. Hindley: At present, there are no tests for measuring T cells to SARS-CoV-2 in a high throughput manner.

Any T cell testing for SARS-CoV-2 has been performed as part of a research study in a handful of specialist laboratories. These laboratories use specialist techniques, most commonly techniques called flow cytometry or ELISpot, which require highly trained staff and relatively expensive equipment.

The main drawbacks of these techniques are that they are relatively long, laborious, and therefore do not have high throughput. They are also difficult to standardize.

Where we were innovative was looking at the minimum requirements to perform this test, to get the necessary data to answer the question of whether a person has specific T cell responses.

By providing just these elements without the added complexity, we made this test much easier to perform in almost any lab, using routine laboratory equipment. Our test also uses whole blood, rather than a population of precursor cells, which require an additional step to purify.

The test uses specific parts of the virus to stimulate virus-specific memory T cells within the blood to release cytokines. We’re able to detect these cytokines within hours of them after production.

MNT: Given that we are currently in a pandemic, how has the way you develop your technology changed compared to how you would normally design a new test?

Dr. Hindley: The main change has been the speed at which we have operated, both internally and externally.

The initial funding from Innovate UK was turned around within 30 days. We were given fast-track approval for our research and ethics committee application. In addition, participants have been keen to make themselves available for testing.

It feels like everyone is coming together and working around the clock to try to tackle this pandemic.

MNT: How did your collaboration come about?

Dr. Hindley: Martin and I did our Ph.Ds. at the same institute and are longstanding colleagues and friends.

The collaboration on this project came about as we were in close contact throughout the start of the pandemic, primarily watching from afar and debating the science.

Then when we heard about the call for funding from Innovate UK to support the development of innovations for tackling COVID-19, we put in an application as we felt like we had a great idea which could genuinely help in the fight against this virus.

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