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Reliable rapid tests that can detect whether a person is infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus are currently seen as a step toward easing coronavirus restrictions. Such tests could be crucial, particularly in allowing kindergartens and schools to reopen – without putting students and teachers at risk.

Scientists Frank Sellrie and Jörg Schenk from the Immunotechnology group of UP Transfer GmbH at the University of Potsdam, Germany, have been working for six months on a project to generate monoclonal antibodies to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of a call for research into COVID-19, has now produced its first results. Meanwhile, the antibodies can also be produced on an industrial scale. A simple laboratory test that can detect coronavirus particles has already been set up at the Potsdam-Golm campus.

Virus mutations also detected

In the future, it should also be possible to use these tests at home. The company ImmoGnost GmbH from Göttingen, Germany, is already developing a rapid test based on the data obtained in Potsdam. To exclude infections with a high probability, visitors and staff in care facilities and clinics, participants in events or visitors to cinemas, theaters or museums, for example, could then be tested or test themselves. By cleverly selecting the target protein, there would also be no danger of viral mutations such as mutants B.1.1.7. from Great Britain or B1.351 from South Africa being overlooked by the new antibodies, the researchers emphasize.

Normally, monoclonal antibodies take a long time to develop. In collaboration with the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, the two Potsdam researchers were able to accelerate this process decisively. The characterization of the antibodies is already well advanced and, for example, undesirable cross-reactivity with the known endemic coronaviruses has been ruled out. Project leader Frank Sellrie expressly praises the cooperation with the Charité Hospital: “The cooperation works excellently; whenever we had new antibody candidates in the pipeline, they were immediately tested on real samples and thus provided us with decision-making guidance. This is just the kind of collaborative relationship you want to have!”

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On the scientific side, additional information about the antibodies continues to be gathered. The two scientists are supported by research groups at the Department of Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses (IZI-BB) at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology. The Biomolecular Nanostructures and Measurement Techniques working group carries out analyses of the binding behavior of the antibodies and thus determines important characteristics of the molecules.

Sellrie and Schenk have been working on the development of new monoclonal antibodies for more than 20 years and are also well-connected in the region with their company Hybrotec GmbH, which they founded 10 years ago, in the Diagnostics Network Berlin-Brandenburg. “We are pleased to once again be working on such an important human diagnostics project in addition to test developments in environmental and food analysis,” adds Jörg Schenk. “In infection diagnostics, we have been active in recent years on hepatitis E and MERS-CoV, another coronavirus.” Of course, the antibodies are now available to other interested cooperation partners, he said.