Flinders’ COVID-19 patients key to beating virus

Posted 18 Aug 2020

As the world waits with bated breath for a vaccine to fight COVID-19, 30 former COVID-19 positive patients have gifted their blood to Flinders researchers in a bid to find ‘super-antibodies’ to use as a weapon to beat the virus.

Among them is Di Keogh, 63, who, along with three close friends, contracted the virus while aboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

“I was fortunate that I didn’t end up in hospital,” Di said.

“My friend was diagnosed first, then the next day I woke up and my throat was killing me, and I coughed all night.

“I was so fatigued, I’d wake up and feel sick and dizzy and have to go back to bed, and my brain was like a fog…It took three or four weeks to recover and even now (four months later) I still feel the fatigue.”

In the four months following her positive test in March, Di has provided several blood samples to a Flinders research team, which includes lead scientist Dr Jing Jing Wang, Professor David Gordon and Professor Tom Gordon, who are working to ‘fingerprint’  the repertoire of antibodies that develop following the disease.

Armed with this knowledge, the team hope to pinpoint the most important ‘super-antibodies’ to help create long-term immunity to future virus infection, and follow their levels in individual patients over time.

Thank you for your generous support of Flinders Heroes. This research is one of eight projects to receive funding from Flinders Foundation and Flinders University to make new discoveries into COVID-19.

The work involves identifying and purifying the COVID-19 specific antibodies from blood and determining their protein sequences using a technique called mass spectrometry, collaborated with Dr Tim Chataway, from the Flinders Proteomics Facility.

“Blood antibodies are the most effective weapons to  beat COVID-19,” Professor Tom Gordon said.  “We are fortunate in being able to collaborate with researchers at the Doherty Institute in Melbourne on this project”.

“The technology we’ve developed here can break down the composition of antibodies which leads to a more meaningful diagnostic test to analyse people infected with COVID-19.

“We’ll be able to tell how well newly developed vaccines are working, by monitoring the level of change in these specific antibodies after natural virus infection compared with the immune response following vaccination….with the aim of finding those antibodies the vaccine should be steered towards.”

The combined Flinders University and SA Pathology research team has already applied their technology to other infectious diseases and vaccines, but like many researchers, the team focussed its expertise on COVID-19 when it struck.

Infectious Diseases specialist Professor David Gordon, who cared for many of the patients who tested positive at Flinders Medical Centre’s COVID-19 Testing Clinic, said he was grateful to the 30 patients for volunteering to provide their blood for the research.

“These people are incredibly valuable because they clearly have the antibodies that worked, because they all got better,” he said.

“Every single person we asked has been so cooperative and happy to help.”

For Di, it was an easy decision to contribute towards this world-class research.

“It’s a big unknown and we need to find answers, so if they can use me, I’ll do anything to help,” she said.

“We were taken such good care of while isolating at home, nurses visited us at home and doctors rang every day to ask how we were and we were given a number to call if ever we needed – they were lovely.”

This research was made possible thanks to generous support of Flinders Heroes. Read more here about how your support is helping healthcare workers and researchers on the frontline. 


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