Sheffield engineers manufacture SARS-CoV-2 virus components for COVID-19 antibody tests

Over the past two months colleagues from the department have collaborated to manufacture component parts of the COVID-19 coronavirus, including the characteristic ‘spike’ glycoprotein that protrudes from the surface of the virus.

Microscopic illustration of the coronavirus that was discovered in Wuhan, China - iimage is an artisic but scientific interpretation, with all relevant surface details of this particular virus in place

These materials are now being used successfully by local Sheffield hospitals and University research laboratories to produce and validate robust and reliable antibody tests against SARS-CoV-2.

An antibody test allows to determine if infected people have produced antibodies in their blood or mucosal secretions that specifically target the virus.  If present, antibodies will bind onto the target viral ‘antigen’ (the spike) and can then be measured to reveal the extent of a person’s acquired immune response. 

Antibody tests are an invaluable weapon in the ongoing fight against the virus and will help reveal the true scale of the pandemic in the population, the persistence of any immunity and whether vaccines designed to protect from infection are effective.

Using genetic constructs supplied by Dr Florian Krammer at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, colleagues from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering led by Professor David James have developed improved bioprocesses to increase manufacture of the complex COVID-19 spike glycoprotein and other related proteins in engineered mammalian cells.  

This collaborative manufacturing project has harnessed the significant biological engineering expertise and facilities available within the department, primarily including genetic engineering (Dr Adam Brown, Dr Théo Mozzanino, Dr Yash Patel), cell culture process engineering (Dr Yusuf Johari, Dr Abayomi Johnson, Dr Stephen Jaffé, Dr Joe Cartwright, Thilo Pohle), bioseparations (Dr Tuck Seng Wong, Dr Kang Lan Tee) and bioanalysis (Professor Mark Dickman, Dr Joseph Scarrott, Dr Philip Jackson).  A variety of researchers have also contributed, including Pamela O’Neill, Adrian Bourke, Caroline Evans, Molly Smith, William Morgan-Evans, William Kerry, Alex Tsimperdonis, Chillel Jawara, Helen Wright, Oscar Swindley, Fergal O’Donnell and Dr Joy Mukherjee.

Critically underpinning this effort has been the support of our expert technical and administrative staff, as well as our team in the Diamond, who have kept supply routes and laboratories functioning effectively: James Grinham, Joe Price, David Wengraf, Richard Stacey, Julie Swales, Nicola Basher, Laura Maltman, Stephen Franklin, Stephen Mason, Martin Highett and Claire Johnson.  

Professor David James

Across the board, the response of our teams to a request from clinicians to help establish a COVID-19 antibody test has been absolutely awe-inspiring.Our people have committed themselves to this task with tireless vigour and professionalism.  We have an extraordinarily deep pool of biological engineering capability that we have been able to deploy, enabled by very effective support staff. Thank you everyone.

Professor David James 

Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering 

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.