University startup develops coronavirus antibody test kit using silkworms

FUKUOKA – A Kyushu University startup in the city of Fukuoka has teamed up with a medical equipment maker to offer a coronavirus antibody test kit utilizing silkworms that allows people to take tests without visiting medical institutions.

Kaico Ltd and Protects Co in Wako, Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo, have jointly developed the mail-in kit that requires people to send a small sample of blood, with Protects beginning the test service targeting companies and organizations on Oct 12.

Each test kit is priced at around 5,000 yen and it takes about a week for people to get results, according to the companies.

The national university is known for silkworm research going back about 100 years, and Takahiro Kusakabe, a professor in the Department of Bioresource Sciences, has discovered that a certain type of silkworm among around 450 species studied at the university can produce a protein used in vaccine production.

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Following the outbreak of coronavirus infections, a research team led by Kusakabe succeeded in growing an artificial protein, which has an identical structure to the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, inside a silkworm.

The companies used this protein to develop the kit that can detect the presence of antibodies in the blood of those taking the test.

Unlike a polymerase chain reaction test, which can tell whether a person is currently infected with the virus, an antibody test can identify whether a person was previously infected.

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“It can lead to a lowering of infection risk among employees,” Kenta Yamato, president of Kaico, said, referring to how the use of the antibody test in companies’ health checkups could allow them to advise employees who test negative for antibodies to refrain from making overseas trips.

Kaico and Protects are eyeing an expansion of testing capacity from 3,000 per week at present to 10,000 per week, they said.

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