Antigens: mass-producing coronavirus parts
Alongside the medical efforts being made, scientists are also hard at work trying to understand the virus and come up with better ways to detect it and make vaccines. To do that, they need key parts of the virus to study, and in particular components of the coat of the coronavirus - the spikes that make it look like a crown, or corona, and so give it its name. And this is where the Oxford-based Native Antigen Company are making big steps forward and providing researchers with these critical components. Adam Murphy spoke to their commercial director, Andy Lane...
Andy - There's a protein on the surface of the virus that is called the spike protein, which the virus uses for a number of things, but especially to gain entry into human cells. We make two proteins from that, one called S1, one called S2, and what people think happens is that the surface protein on the virus, the spike protein, binds to a particular receptor that some cells have on the surface. And once it's bound to that, it becomes internalised into the cell. And that's where it can replicate and obviously grow in numbers.
Adam - How do you go about making protein parts of a virus?
Andy - We rely very much on having the genetic sequence of the virus available. That was published by the Chinese really quite early in the outbreak. Once the genetic sequence is available, we can synthesise the individual genes from the virus and to put it very simply, we insert them into a human cell system that we have that makes proteins pretty much on demand.
Adam - Who are you sending them to and what are they going to do with them?
Andy - So we send them to probably three different types of people. One key type for us at the moment are companies around the world who are trying to make diagnostic tests. The aim is to detect the body's immune response to the virus, which is generally considered to be an antibody response. And if you make an antibody response to the virus, those antibodies will bind the proteins we make and can be used in tests that these diagnostic companies make. An antibody test has a great advantage that it can detect an immune response from many months after an infection and an antibody test will potentially be able to find out how many asymptomatic people there are in the population. The vaccine development companies is another group of customers. When they test their vaccines, initially usually in animal models and then later on in humans, they will be looking to make sure that those vaccines produce an immune response against the virus and they can use the proteins that we make to confirm that. And then the third group of people are the academic researchers who are really investigating everything they can find out about the virus at the moment. But we're finding it important in ourselves to realise that this isn't just a simple business opportunity, that we're here right now to help the worldwide response to this, developing the right proteins and making sure that we support as many efforts as we can both in the UK and around the world.