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Bioengineering professor Andrew Tsourkas leads the TITAN Lab. (Photo from Andrew Tsourkas)

The National Institutes of Health awarded a Penn Engineering lab and Penn-based startup $667,000 to improve COVID-19 detection technology.

Led by Bioengineering professor Andrew Tsourkas, the Targeted Imaging Therapeutics and Nanomedicine (Titan) Lab partnered with AlphaThera, a startup located at the Pennovation Center, to improve the ELISA technology, which is widely used to detect COVID-19 infections. ELISA, also known as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, is used to detect antibodies, proteins the body makes to fight an infection like COVID-19.

By improving ELISA technology, the Titan lab and AlphaThera will enable faster and more sensitive antibody tests for COVID-19 patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibody tests may allow patients to determine if they have previously been infected with COVID-19, but do not detect a current COVID-19 infection.

James Hui, who founded AlphaThera alongside Tsourkas, said the company has been working on reducing the time it takes to complete an ELISA assay in detecting antibodies for COVID-19. 

“These assays can take anywhere between three hours to six hours, but we can do these ELISA assays about probably half the time if not more," said Hui, who received a Ph.D. in Bioengineering from Penn in 2015 and Doctor of Medicine from the Perelman School of Medicine in 2017.

AlphaThera is responsible for developing the ELISA assays, while Tsourkas’ lab conducts pre-clinical testing for further development of the technology before testing on human samples. After AlphaThera's assays have been validated with the test samples, the team will begin clinical trials in Ping Wang lab at Penn Medicine on about 80 human samples from both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, Tsourkas said.

“The main benefit for the lab is that it shows a practical application for some basic technology we developed in the lab,” Tsourkas said. “It's always nice to see something turned into a product and be useful for laboratories beyond our own.”

Tsourkas said his lab's research also focuses on improving ELISA's sensitivity to detect antibodies, which will help healthcare workers identify a greater number of patients who were previously infected with the virus. 

“We have some cool antibody labeling technologies that we think will give us a significant boost in sensitivity and how rapid we can read out whether the patient has those antibodies in their serum,” he said.

Their goal is to have the technology's validation studies be completed and for kits to be made available to the public within a year, Tsourkas said.

Vaccines imitate an infection while almost never causing illness, prompting the body to produce antibodies and white blood cells that will remember how to fight the disease in the future. Tsourkas said, therefore, fast antibody tests to determine whether a vaccine has prompted the body to produce antibodies will become more important as vaccine development progresses. 

“As vaccines are being developed now, we need to check to see whether they're working and to see how much of the population was really exposed [to the virus]," Tsourkas said.

Tsourkas' research can also be applied to other antibody-detecting assays already on the market to improve their speed and sensitivity, he said.

While AlphaThera has been working to make the technology commercially viable and competitive in the market, Hui said their priority is to ensure the assays' speed and sensitivity in detecting antibodies.

“We're not trying to be the first to roll off the market and try to get as much sales as possible,” he said.  “Ultimately, we are a technology company [that is] more interested in developing a better product.”