Scientists have developed a way of seeing the body’s immune response to Covid-19 at a molecular level from a two-hour test.
The method has been pioneered by Fluidic Analytics, a Cambridge University spin-out, and has been likened to the cracking of Nazi Enigma codes in the Second World War.
Andrew Lynn, chief executive of Fluidic Analytics, said: “The analogy that we like to use is we’ve got a way of understanding how the virus is attacking the body and how antibodies are attacking them.
“It’s a lot like the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.
“They weren’t the ones doing the fighting on the front lines, and in our case this is individual researchers.
“What we’re able to do is provide unique information about how that enemy is behaving, how it’s moving, how it’s interacting with our troops, so that giving that information can help us defeat the enemy a little bit more accurately.”
To see the information, a nurse takes a blood sample from a patient and a disposable chip is loaded into a “bread maker sized” machine, Mr Lynn said.
A read-out, given within two hours, indicates not only the presence of antibodies but also “whether you have antibodies that are disrupting the interaction of Covid-19 with a host cell”.
Mr Lynn said this is quicker than a previous process which took five days and provides new detail on how tightly antibodies are binding to the virus – and thus their effectiveness.
He said this could have several uses, including to monitor the body’s immune response during vaccine trials “to be able to help us answer the question how long does immunity to Covid-19 last?”.
It could also help to select the “right donors” for a process in which the blood of someone who has had Covid-19 and developed antibodies is transfused to somebody who is unwell with the virus, Mr Lynn said.
NHS Blood and Transplant has a Covid-19 clinical trial on convalescent plasma – the antibody-rich plasma of someone who has recovered from a virus – and Mr Lynn said that detail at a molecular level could help add “quality control” to this.
“We can now identify which patients have really highly functioning antibodies, those that attack the virus and attach to it most tightly, on the understanding that those are the patients that are going to be able to fend off that virus with an effective immune response,” he said.
The device has been used at a hospital in Zurich in Switzerland, where a Cambridge University PhD student, who is Swiss, is working.
The technology started development at Cambridge University 12 years ago and was spun out into commercial development in 2015, by venture capital-backed Fluidic Analytics.
It has already been used for various applications.
“When Covid-19 hit we were able to very rapidly turn our attention to Covid-19 and get an instrument into a hospital in Zurich and start doing meaningful research within the span of about a month,” said Mr Lynn.
Leading Covid-19 researcher and physician Professor Adriano Aguzzi, the architect of a previous clinical study that mapped the immune response to Covid-19 in thousands of patients in Zurich, said the development could be a “game-changer”.
“Current techniques mean we still don’t really know how the body’s immune response works against the virus, which is hampering our efforts to combat the disease,” he said.
“This breakthrough gives us invaluable new insights and could be a game-changer for our ability to understand, diagnose and treat Covid-19.”
The device, called the Fluidity One-W Serum, requires regulatory approval before it could be used in UK hospitals, which Mr Lynn estimates would take a year.
It could be used immediately by those engaged in vaccine trials and clinical research.