Written by: Mari DeMarco PhD, DABCC, FCACB

Research in the time of COVID

Mari DeMarco, Clinical Chemist at the St. Paul’s Hospital,PHC, Clinical Associate Professor at the UBC Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Principal Investigator at the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation
The initial rise of COVID-19 cases in British Columbia brought a swift closure to my research lab, along with all university research labs. Fortunately, with new safety measures quickly implemented at Providence Health Care and the desire to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, our closure was relatively short-lived. Students, fellows, and staff returned early in the pandemic to assist with new COVID-19 focused projects.

PHC LabMed Biobank

At the start of the pandemic, one of the priorities in the clinical chemistry lab at St. Paul’s Hospital became saving specimens from individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2. These specimens were essential for the rapid validation and implementation of COVID-19 diagnostic testing for our patients. We also appreciated the future need for this resource as lab tests for this viral infection evolved and the potential for supporting clinical research efforts. Also recognizing the importance of this work was the St. Paul’s Foundation and the Cullen family, who have generously supported our efforts.

David Yang organizing specimen data. Yun Li preparing COVID-19 biofluid specimens for biobanking.

As identifying, aliquoting, and storing COVID-19 specimens had to be done on top of the usual workload in the clinical chemistry lab, we enlisted the help of my UBC research lab to assist with the clinical lab’s efforts. With the support of Dr. Darryl Knight, VP of Research and Academic Affairs at Providence Health Care, Yun Li, a 4th year BMLSc student, joined us in the fall of 2020. As a full-time undergraduate student, Yun has worked diligently around her academic studies, joining us in the lab on days (and half-days) when she is not in class. We were also fortunate to draw from the experience of David Yang, a research assistant in my lab and a BMLSc graduate, who had previous experience biobanking at the BC Children’s Hospital BioBank. The combined contributions of David, Yun and the clinical chemistry medical lab technologists will ensure that the clinical lab, as well as researchers, can access specimens from the beginning of the pandemic in British Columbia.

Next-generation serology for COVID-19

As experts in the development of a clinical assays for protein biomarkers, I decided to put my research lab’s expertise to the test in building a novel blood test for COVID-19. An early goal of the research program was to build a test that revealed detailed information about an individual’s immune response to COVID-19. Support from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research’s COVID-19 Research Response Fund and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s Exceptional Opportunities Fund were essential in getting a quick start on this project.

Taylor Pobran & Meng Wang getting the instrument ready for the next-generation COVID-19 serology test.

Taylor Pobran, who earned his Master’s degree with honors the previous year, rejoined the lab to help drive this project. Joined by Dr. Meng Wang, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab, the pair have helped us achieve our goal of delivering this new blood test within an accelerated timeframe. Through their hard work and collaborative approach, the blood test has already been deployed to help us better understand an individual’s immunological response in a wide-range of situations from individuals with severe COVID-19 infections requiring hospitalization to health care workers following immunization.

While the pandemic has brought us many challenges, my lab members and I are grateful for the opportunity to be able to apply our scientific skills in order to make a positive contribution in the fight against COVID-19.