A Match Game

<chirp chirp> “Lab C-324, Susan Kim speaking.”

<hoarsely> “Hi Susan, it’s Sy. Fair warning. The at‑home test I just ran says I’ve got Covid. I’ve had all four shots but it looks like some new variant dodged in anyway. We had coffee together at Al’s yesterday so I wanted to warn you. Better stock up on cough medicine and such.”

“Ooh. Thanks, Sy, sorry to hear that. If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. About half the lab’s empty today because of Covid. I’m just waiting for this last extraction to complete and then I’m outta here myself. There’s chicken soup going in the slow‑cooker at home.”

“Ah, yes, a Jewish mother’s universal remedy.”

“Korean mothers, too, Sy, except we use more garlic. Chicken soup’s a standard all over the world — soothing, easy on the stomach and loaded with protein.”

“While you’re in wait mode, maybe you could explain something to me.”

“I can try. What is it?”

“How do these tests work? I swabbed my nose, swirled the yuck with the liquid in the little vial and put three drops into the ‘sample port‘ window. In the next few minutes fluid crept across the display window next to the port and I saw dark bars at the T and C markers. What’s that all about?”

“Miracles of modern immunochemistry, Sy, stuff we wouldn’t have been able to execute fifty years ago. What do you know about antibodies?”

“Not much. I’ve read a little about immunology but I always get the antibodies confused with the antigens and then my understanding goes south.”

“Ignore the ‘anti‘ parts — an antigen is usually a part of something from outside that generates an immune response. As part of the response, cells in your body build antibodies, targeted proteins that stick to specific antigens. Each unique antibody is produced by just a few of your cells. When you’re under a disease attack, your antibodies that match the attacker’s antigens lock onto the attacker to signal your defender cells what needs chewing up. About half‑a‑dozen Nobel Prizes went to researchers who figured out how to get a lab‑grown cell to react to a given antigen and then how to clone enough copies of that cell to make industrial quantities of the corresponding antibody. You follow?”

“So far, so good.”

“One more layer of detail. All antibodies are medium-sized proteins with the same structure like a letter Y. There’s a unique targeting bit at the end of each upper arm. An antigen can be anything — a fragment of protein or carbohydrate, a fatty acid, even some minerals.”

“Wait. If a protein can be an antigen, does that mean that an antibody can be an antigen, too?”

“Indeed, that’s the key for your test kit’s operation. The case holds a strip of porous plastic like filter paper that’s been treated with two narrow colorless stripes and a dot. The T stripe contains immobilized antibody for some fragment of the virus. The C stripe contains immobilized antibody antibody.”

“Hold on — an antibody that targets another antibody like maybe the bottom of the Y?”

“Exactly. That’s the control indicator. The dot holds virus antibodies that can move and they’re linked to tiny particles of gold. Each gold particle is way too small to see, but a bunch of them gathered together looks red‑brown. Okay, you put a few drops of yuckified liquid on top of the dot and the mixture migrates along the porous material. You tell me what happens.”

“Wait, what’s in that liquid?”

“It’s standard pH-buffered saline, keeps the proteins healthy.”

“Hmm. Alright, the dot’s gold‑labeled virus antibody grabs virus in my yuck and swims downstream. The T stripe’s virus antibody snags the virus‑antigen combination particles and I see red‑brown there. Or not, if there’s no virus. Meanwhile, the creeping liquid sweeps other gold‑labeled antibodies, virus‑bound or not, until they hit the C stripe and turn it red‑brown if things are working right. Uhhh, how much gold are we talking about?”

“Colloidal gold particles are typically balls maybe 50 nanometers across. Stripe area’s about 1 mm2, times 50 nanometers, density 19.32 kg/m3, gold’s $55 per gram today … about 5 microcents worth.”

~~ Rich Olcott