U of A spinoff company partners with Alberta Health Services to produce reagents for COVID-19 tests

Applied Quantum Materials takes on production of critical components for testing, providing Alberta and Canada with a local supply.

Stacey Hume

Associate professor Stacey Hume is working with colleagues at the U of A and with the spinoff company Applied Quantum Materials to produce a made-in-Alberta supply of chemical reagents needed for COVID-19 tests. (Photo: Supplied)

University of Alberta spinoff company Applied Quantum Materials Inc. (AQM) is using its chemical production expertise to partner with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Alberta Precision Labs to provide critical reagents needed for COVID-19 testing.

“These reagents—or ‘magnetic beads’—used in standard nucleic acid testing are the gold standard for molecular tests,” said Stacey Hume, associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Medical Genetics. “And until now, Canada did not have any local suppliers of this critical medical reagent within the country.”

The partnership began when Hume, a graduate of the Faculty of Science, identified the need to increase production of the reagents.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented demand for medical reagents around the world. Canada’s supply chain for critical personal protective equipment and medical diagnostics is limited and our system is highly dependent on foreign suppliers.

Chemical Reactor producing magnetic beads
AQM uses chemical reactors to produce the "magnetic beads" used in molecular tests for COVID-19. (Photo: AQM)

“AQM was able to respond quickly and effectively because of our team—all of whom are University of Alberta alumni,” said Jon Veinot, professor in the Department of Chemistry and CTO and co-founder of AQM. “They understand the processes involved in nanoparticle preparation and tailoring the material properties, giving our team the skills and dedication needed to pivot quickly to produce these reagents.”

The one-time-use reagents are an integral component of a COVID test. When patient samples are returned to the lab, a portion is treated to break open the virus and expose its genetic material. The critical step involves adding magnetic silicon nanoparticle beads, which bind to all genetic material. This purified genetic material is then tested to determine whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus is present, indicating if the patient has an active COVID infection.

“During the initial outbreak of the pandemic, my lab helped with COVID-19 testing as we had all the equipment required,” explained Hume. “I became aware of how difficult it was to acquire the reagent for the COVID tests. Continuous supply and quality of product from international suppliers were both proving to be issues.”

Hume reached out to a few potential partners, including AQM, to explore production of the reagents required—and after many trials AQM’s reagents were found to perform the best, resulting in improved detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The ability to produce these important reagents during the pandemic is not only a success story for AQM and the U of A, but for the entire province as well, the AQM team said.

“This is a high-quality, made-in-Alberta product that reduces Canada’s dependency on foreign suppliers,” said David Antoniuk, CEO of AQM and graduate of the Faculty of Engineering. “Our technology is versatile and can be used for all nucleic acid extraction processes, so even when COVID dissipates, there will always be a need for our product. 

“Our efforts have created exciting jobs for university graduates at a time when Alberta is transitioning and diversifying its economy. This reduces our import-to-export ratio and keeps more wealth in Alberta.”

Precision Health is an emerging approach to health and wellness that expands on efforts to understand, diagnose and treat disease through advances in technology. Learn more about this U of A signature area, or learn how you can get involved.