PlantForm | Newsroom | PlantForm research partnership aims for a more effective COVID-19 serology test

PlantForm research partnership aims for a more effective COVID-19 serology test

NSERC Alliance Grant supports U of Alberta scientist’s work on role of O-glycans in triggering immune response

GUELPH, Ont., Aug. 6, 2020 – A research partnership between PlantForm Corporation and University of Alberta scientist Dr. Warren Wakarchuk has received an Alliance Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) that may lead to better diagnostic tools for COVID-19.

Wakarchuk is a leading expert on the structure and function of glycans, chains of sugar molecules that coat the surface of living cells and play a variety of important roles including regulating immune cell function and signalling. He is a professor in the Department of Biological Science at the Faculty of Science, as well as the associate scientific director of GlycoNet, a pan-Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence of more than 140 researchers, centred at UAlberta.

The $50,000 NSERC grant will support work led by Wakarchuk investigating how O-glycans on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein — the COVID-19 pandemic strain — play a role in triggering antibody responses to the virus.

The grant extends an ongoing research partnership with the Wakarchuk lab aimed at improving PlantForm’s novel glycosylation technology used in the production of next-generation therapeutic protein drugs. Glycosylation is the process of attaching sugars to organic molecules, especially proteins, in order to modify their properties.

“PlantForm is pleased to continue working with Dr. Wakarchuk to support Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Don Stewart, PlantForm’s President and CEO. “There is a critical need for a diagnostic test to identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in recovered patients, but the development of such a test is complicated because there are several other common coronaviruses that affect humans, and we need to be able to distinguish between them.”

The one-year NSERC Alliance project pairs PlantForm’s expertise in recombinant protein production using their proprietary tobacco-plant-based vivoXPRESS® platform, with the Wakarchuk lab’s toolbox of enzymes that can be used to make or remodel a wide variety of glycans.

The work will focus on attaching enzymes to the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the Spike (S) protein that influence the virus’s ability to enter and infect cells. The team is particularly interested in O-glycans, which are often ignored by researchers because they are difficult to analyze. Scientists working with viruses typically use favourite cell lines derived from sources such as animal kidney cells or human cancer cells — which may have limited value when investigating a virus that attacks the lungs and airways.

“Viruses are covered with sugars that help shield them from the infected person’s immune response. But sometimes those sugars are detected by the immune system, triggering a response,” said Wakarchuk. “While N-glycans cover 40 per cent of the virus cell surface, there is science suggesting O-glycans may also play a role in antigens or immune markers that determine the body’s ability to resist infection. We plan to make O-glycans using PlantForm’s technology so we don’t have to rely on expression in a particular cell line.”

PlantForm will use its vivoXPRESS® platform to make and purify the fragment of the S protein believed to be involved in COVID-19 infection. The plan is to synthesize in vitro four to six distinct O-glycans on the S protein expressed from tobacco plants to evaluate their contribution to antigenicity. The goal is to understand the role of different classes of glycans in the serological response to COVID infection.

“This research will contribute to PlantForm’s work to develop a robust diagnostic kit for detection of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in blood samples of recovered patients and the general population,” Stewart said.

About PlantForm Corporation (
PlantForm Corporation is a biopharmaceutical company focused on the rapid development and production of biosimilar and specialty antibodies and proteins using the company’s proprietary vivoXPRESS® platform. The plant-based vivoXPRESS® system makes it easier, faster and less expensive to produce biologics for approved and novel indications. The technology platform originated at the University of Guelph through the work of Chris Hall as one of the company’s founders. PlantForm has an expanding portfolio of patents in seven families to protect both the core platform technology and products in development.

Also see PlantForm’s White Paper on COVID-19 testing


For more information, please contact:

Don Stewart
President and CEO, PlantForm Corp.
+1 416-452-7242

Stacey Curry Gunn
Director of Communications, PlantForm Corp.
+1 519-827-1131

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