Three researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Small Molecule Screening Facility (SMSF) at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center (UWCCC) have expanded their collaboration in new directions because of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Gene Ananiev, PhD, Facility Manager of the SMSF, Tim Bugni, PhD, a Professor in the School of Pharmacy, and David Andes, MD, Professor of Medicine and Medical Microbiology and Immunology and Head of the Division of Infection Disease, worked together on antibiotic compound discovery and development, now they have added Covid-19-related projects to that list.
“It was kind of an interesting aside…” said David Andes “To try to see a need, fill a need.”
The need they saw was for tools that are necessary around any pandemic or infectious disease outbreak: Ways to quickly diagnose and manage those who are infected and ways to study the epidemiology of the disease—the distribution pattern and frequency, causes and risk factors for infection within a population. Specifically, the three were interested in an antibody test that could be used not only to understand the proportion of the population that might have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2, but that also could be used to evaluate the response to different vaccine candidates.
Antibody tests are often used to determine whether individuals have been exposed to certain bacteria or viruses. For most existing antibody tests, the process goes something like this: A vial of blood is drawn from the individual, the vial is sent to a lab, then a trained technicians performs the antibody test and sends back the results. The current process is less than ideal for a few reasons. For one, blood draws are invasive and can be painful. Also, getting results could take days due to the time required to deliver and process the sample. Lastly, costs can be high, since the need for trained professionals and specialized instruments in laboratory settings adds to the cost of each test.
What if all you needed to do for an antibody test was apply a single drop of blood onto a thin piece of film, and you would get results on the spot within five minutes? Scientists have recently developed an antibody test based on bioluminescent technology that could make this a reality. They describe their findings in a recent study published in ACS Sensors.
Science is the practice of figuring out how things work and then using that knowledge to further our understanding or to create tools that can solve problems facing the world. Bioluminescent tools and assays are examples of science doing all these things. Bioluminescence is the light-yielding (luminescence) chemical reaction that is used by many lifeforms. When fireflies flicker in the twilight, they are using bioluminescence to flash on and off. Chemically, bioluminescence happens when an enzyme called luciferase acts on a light-emitting compound, luciferin, in the presence of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), magnesium and oxygen.
For scientists, bioluminescence can serve as a tool to help them understand many cellular functions. Since few animal or plant cells produce their own light, there is little to no background signal (light) to be concerned about. This lack of background means that all light coming from the sample can be measured. In fact, bioluminescence is often a preferred tool for scientists because it does not require an external light source or special filters, which are required for fluorescence-based technologies.
Promega scientists have developed bioluminescent tools and assays to support leading edge scientific research for decades, beginning in 1990 with the Luciferase biosensor technology based on firefly luciferase. Luciferase is a wonderful tool for studying how enzymes work because its output (light) is so easy to measure: samples are placed into a special instrument called a luminometer, and the amount of light being produced (Relative Light Units) is recorded. Bioluminescence technology can be configured to measure a variety of cellular biology, ranging from cell health to enzyme activity down to the specific event of turning a gene on or off. The advent of new techniques for genetic manipulation, along with an enhanced understanding of bioluminescence and the discovery and engineering of better luciferases, enables science to use bioluminescence in even more unique ways.