Doctor testing patient for Covid-19

DTU researchers produce enzymes needed for corona tests

Wednesday 22 Apr 20


Tomas Strucko
Academic Employee
DTU Bioengineering
+45 45 25 25 81


Morten Nørholm
Senior Researcher
DTU Biosustain
+45 45 25 80 26


Mette Haagen Marcussen
Senior Strategy and Communications Advisor
DTU Bioengineering
+45 23 71 23 10

In a very short amount of time, researchers at DTU have succeeded in producing enzymes that are used in corona tests.

On March 11, Denmark shut down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shortly thereafter, the manufacturers announced that they could not provide sufficient corona tests

Associate Professor Henrik Toft Simonsen at DTU Bioengineering immediately decided to find out exactly what the producers needed to deliver tests and whether it was something that could be produced in DTU's laboratories.

"Our project shows that DTU, and most likely also other Danish research institutions, can adapt the research very quickly, so that we can respond effectively to a threat like the Covid-19 pandemic. "
Associate Professor Henrik Toft SImonsen, DTU Bioengineering

He found that what was missing was a specific enzyme used in the pretreatment of the test. The enzyme performs reverse transcription, that is, it transcribes viral RNA into DNA and increases the stability of the sample. This DNA is subsequently measured to determine if a patient is infected with Covid-19. Normally these enzymes can be purchased from various companies. But in the event of a pandemic, the supply of enzymes quickly run out. Henrik Toft Simonsen thought that it would be better if Denmark could become self-sufficient, and since he is an expert in using technology to genetically manipulate organisms to produce certain substances, such as enzymes, he decided to try to produce the enzymes at DTU. 

In collaboration with Morten Nørholm's research group at DTU Biosustain, Postdoc Tomas Strucko was in charge of the cloning, which took place in a cloning strain of E. coli, which is a bacterium that is very well mapped and which is often used in genetic engineering. They quickly succeeded in getting the bacterium to produce the enzyme and the next step is to transfer the clone into a production strain, which can then produce the enzyme in larger quantities. Henrik Toft Simonsen elaborates:

“We are now going to produce the enzyme and it will probably take place in a 1 liter fermentor, a kind of small tank where the bacterium produces the enzyme. I think we can get enough of a liter of enzyme for approximately 10,000 tests”.

In the meantime, the manufacturers have solved the supply issue via other channels and the enzymes produced at DTU are therefore not currently going to be used in tests, but in research. Although the project may not end up helping hospitals, it has not been in vain emphasizes Henrik Toft Simonsen:

“Our project shows that DTU and most likely also other Danish research institutions can adapt their research very quickly, so that we can respond effectively to a threat like the Covid-19 pandemic. Denmark does not have to depend on deliveries from abroad, and it is important knowledge that will make us stronger in any future pandemics. ”

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