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Antibody testing research receives NSF RAPID grant

Project will investigate the origins of social inequalities in COVID-19 across neighborhoods in Chicago
blood spots for antibody testing
Dried blood samples for COVID-19 antibody testing

Northwestern University researchers have received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to generate scientific insights into the determinants of SARS-CoV-2 exposure with a minimally invasive approach to community-based serological testing.

This project is among the latest at Northwestern to receive a rapid research (RAPID) grant from the NSF, which has called for immediate proposals that have potential to address the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The team of scientists includes Thomas McDadeNanette BenbowAlexis DemonbreunRichard D’AquilaElizabeth McNally and Brian Mustanski

Working with the eHealth experts in the University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH), a web-based, “no-contact” research platform was developed to investigate the origins of social inequities in COVID-19 across neighborhoods in Chicago.

Recruited participants will go to a home page with their smart phone or computer where consent is administered electronically, as is a survey. A kit is mailed for the collection of a finger stick dried blood spot (DBS) sample, which is returned to the lab and analyzed for IgG antibodies against the receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2. 

Test results will be combined with survey responses and neighborhood-based administrative data to investigate the individual-, household- and community-level predictors of exposure.

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We want to understand the causes and solutions to the dramatic race and place inequities in COVID-19.

Brian Mustanski
Professor of Medical Social Sciences

“The goals of this project are inherently about understanding the causes and solutions to the dramatic race and place inequities in COVID-19 across the city of Chicago and in other communities around the county,” said Mustanski, director of ISGMH and professor of medical social sciences in Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. 

The second aim of the research is to develop a protocol for detecting neutralizing antibodies in DBS samples. This aim addresses an important limitation of current antibody tests which detect the presence of binding antibodies, but cannot quantify the presence of the neutralizing antibodies in the laboratory, which are candidates for conferring protection against re-infection by preventing the virus from entering host cells. The protocol will then be applied to samples from the first aim to investigate the factors that predict the development of neutralizing activity to SARS-CoV-2. If so, a next step in future research will be to see if they protect people from re-infection.

“The broader impacts of this research include the generation of data on the predictors of viral spread in the community that can be used to mitigate future outbreaks and improved methods for antibody testing to inform estimates of herd immunity,” said McDade, a professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow with the University’s Institute for Policy Research. “The project also integrates research and education, and includes public outreach activities on the role of antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2.”

The project, “RAPID: Next phase serological testing for SARS-CoV-2 for biocultural research,” is one of several current efforts led by Northwestern researchers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. It is funded by NSF award number 2035114. 

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