Medical school partners with Kalamazoo-based IONTOX to develop COVID-19 antibody test

Editor's note: This story was written for WMed and reprinted with permission.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine is developing antibody testing in collaboration with a Kalamazoo-based company.

The medical school has worked with IONTOX, which is headquartered at the WMed Innovation Center, to develop an ELISA, or an enzyme-linked immunoassay, to detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. 

Prentiss Jones, Ph.D., director of the medical school’s forensic toxicology laboratory WMed Forentox, worked with IONTOX to develop a double-blind test, said Greg Vanden Heuvel, Ph.D., the medical school’s associate dean for Research. The medical school is seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be able to administer the test to people who want to be tested.

To develop the test, the medical school and IONTOX needed samples from individuals who had COVID-19 to measure their antibody response. Tom Blok, MD, the medical school’s assistant dean for Clinical Research, worked with Bronson Methodist Hospital to obtain serum from patients who had been hospitalized with COVID-19. That serum was used to develop the antibody test.

“These samples are valuable because plasma from individuals who have had the disease and recovered contains antibodies against the virus,” Dr. Vanden Heuvel said. “That plasma can be given to patients who are very sick with COVID-19, and the antibodies may help boost their immune system to fight off the infection. It’s been shown to work quite well. It was quite a thing for Bronson hospital to give us some of that serum.”

An antibody test determines whether a person has been previously exposed to the virus.

“There’s a lot of talk about how different the response to being infected with the virus is,” Dr. Vanden Heuvel said. Some people get really sick and wind up on a ventilator and other people never get sick at all. The question remains, how many people have been infected with this virus? That is up in the air.”

Dr. Vanden Heuvel said it appears around 5 percent of the population has been infected with the virus, including people who are asymptomatic. Researchers also want to know whether there is a difference in the rate of transmission in a populous area like New York or Detroit and a more rural area like Southwest Michigan. 

The development of the ELISA is one small step in figuring out the COVID-19 virus, Dr. Vanden Heuvel said. An advantage of the ELISA test over similar tests is it gives a titer, which means it can quantify how many antibodies are present in a sample. Currently, about 100 antibody tests are being used, but only a handful are FDA-approved and only a small amount are ELISA tests, Dr. Vanden Heuvel said. The medical school’s findings will be used as research to inform the development of COVID-19.

“One of the advantages of the ELISA is we can tell this person how much of an antibody they have against the virus,” Dr. Vanden Heuvel said. “As more and more is known about the virus, I envision that we’ll be able to know how much antibody a person needs to be immune from this virus.” 

James McKim, Ph.D., founder of IONTOX and a member of the medical school’s community faculty, said his research laboratory was in the process of developing a kit to test for COVID-19 antibodies when Dr. Vanden Heuvel and Erik Larson, Ph.D., associate professor in the medical school's Department of Biomedical Sciences, reached out and proposed the collaboration.

“We’re really excited that we can provide a higher quality test than some of the large companies while at the same time keeping our prices at or below their prices,” Dr. McKim said. “Our kit is going to be able to give the Michigan area the ability to track immunity and that’s a key part of understanding the COVID-19 issue.”

Emily Monacelli is WMed Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator. This story was written for WMed and reprinted with permission.
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