To diagnose COVID-19, a team of researchers from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) developed a new — and curious — technique to find antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. In development, the test combines a bioluminescent enzyme, found in fireflies, with a protein that binds to the infectious agent.
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“This study is an example of how a small species of firefly [Amydetes vivianii] can provide so many benefits to society. An example of how the biodiversity of our forests and science, both so severely threatened, can together bring innovative solutions and add economic and social value to a developing country like Brazil”, explained the UFSCar professor and main author of the research, Vadim Viviani.
How does the COVID-19 test work?
In the test under development of COVID-19, the enzyme (from fireflies) used belongs to the class of luciferases, that is, those enzymes that can catalyze biological reactions and transform chemical energy into light. Generically, this phenomenon is called bioluminescence. In the insect, it is this enzyme that allows it to glow at night.
In the research, the species Amydetes vivianii is found on UFSCar’s Sorocaba campus and was named in honor of Professor Viviani. That’s because he was the one who discovered the species and cloned the DNA that encodes the luciferase of this type of firefly into bacteria.
“We took our brightest luciferase and genetically engineered it into a protein capable of binding to antibodies. If antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 are present in the sample, the binding will occur and this can be detected by means of light emission”, explained researcher Viviani to Agência FAPESP.
Next step of the study with fireflies
The researchers have already filed a patent application for the new bioluminescent system at the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI). Now, they are looking to calculate the amount of antibodies present in saliva or nasal swab (swab) sufficient to trigger bioluminescence, so that the new biosensor can be used in rapid and non-invasive testing for COVID-19.
“To take this second phase of the research forward, we are already in talks with researcher Heidge Fukumasu, from USP. Another perspective will be the use of nanotechnology to develop immunoassays in collaboration with the research group of Professor Iseli Nantes, from the Federal University of ABC [UFABC]”, Viviani counts.
The work was developed at the Biochemistry and Bioluminescent Technologies Laboratory at UFSCar and had the collaboration of Paulo Lee Ho, from the Butantan Institute. So far, the scientific study of the discovery has not been published.