Biotech company with ties to Sarnia joins COVID-19 fight

Greenhouse manager John Teat and research scientist Dr. Haifeng Wang check on the progress of plants producing antibodies in each cell. April 2015. (Photo from PlantForm's Facebook page)

A biotech company with ties to Sarnia has joined the fight against COVID-19.

PlantForm CEO Don Stewart said the company is working on two initiatives in response to testing and treatment needs related to the virus.

“One is developing a reagent that will be important in diagnostic tests for antibodies, that’s for following infection. And also we’re working on a program to develop a therapeutic drug, and that’s being developed in collaboration with groups in Texas and Alabama in the United States,” he said. “We had a project on influenza in the states, and the funding agency in the U.S. had asked the investigators to move over to COVID and we feel that we can implement our technology in a fast manner and it will have a meaningful impact on COVID in Ontario and beyond Canada and the world.”

Stewart said unlike most COVID-19 diagnostic tests, which test for genetic material to see if someone has been exposed to COVID-19, the PlantForm collaboration is focused on producing reagents that will identify antibodies in the blood that indicate immunity to the virus.

“Canada does not currently have a blood test to detect COVID-19 immunity. We are developing a test that will identify the convalescent immune population, which is critical to disease monitoring and control.”

Stewart said the technology used to develop a therapeutic drug involves producing proteins and antibodies in tobacco plants.

“It’s quite unique technology. The reason we do this is the tobacco plant becomes a bioreactor, and in the course of five weeks, it can produce these materials that can then become therapeutic drugs or diagnostic reagents,” he said. “The technology is actually implemented because it’s very cheap to run compared to standard production methods and we have a lot of versatility in the way we can produce materials.”

The privately-held company was established in 2008 and has offices in Sarnia, Guelph and Toronto.

-With files from Melanie Irwin.