Researcher works to develop a test for deadly diseases



Christine Soto, founder of Monoclonals Inc., is working on a rapid-response test for the Lassa virus.
PHOTO BY KATE COUGH

ELLSWORTH — The newest tenant at the Union River Center for Innovation may be living and working locally, but she hopes her work will reach thousands of miles away — to the coast West Africa and beyond.

Christine Soto moved to Bar Harbor with her family in June, a year after starting Monoclonals Inc. at her home in West Lawn, Pa.

The company’s name refers to antibodies known as “monoclonals.” Antibodies are one of the mechanisms the body has to fight substances it thinks are foreign, including viruses and bacteria. Antibodies circulate in the blood looking for potentially dangerous cells to attach to. If they find one, antibodies can stop a cell from growing, destroy it or flag it for destruction.

Monoclonals are frequently used today to fight cancer and bacterial and viral infections.

Soto spent nearly 15 years working with monoclonal antibodies to treat numerous diseases such as rabies, multiple sclerosis and HIV.

Her current aim is to create a rapid-response test for Lassa virus that uses monoclonal antibodies. The test kit would resemble a basic pregnancy test but instead would detect various strains of the deadly hemorrhagic fever.

Soto chose the Union River Center for Innovation after months of searching in several states for lab space and coming up empty. Everything she looked at was too expensive or didn’t have the right equipment. After reading about the Jackson Lab, she called around and was directed to the Union River Center for Innovation.

“When they called me it was meant to be,” Soto said. “The fact that they knew, that they understood what I needed was awesome.”

Soto is entirely self-funded, working part time at Home Depot to fund Monoclonals Inc. She estimates that she’s put in about $12,500 of her own money so far.

Monoclonal antibodies are expensive to produce and require that researchers figure out the exact structure of the harmful cell. If they don’t have the design quite right, the monoclonal antibodies may not recognize the unwanted cells and pass them by. Soto said it took her six months to come up with the pattern she thinks will work, but there are no guarantees.

Now that she has her design in hand, Soto can take it and inject it into mice, which will be housed and cared for at the University of Maine. The mice will produce antibodies that she can use to create coated test strips. A line on the strips will turn red if they detect the virus.

Because of the stringent safety precautions necessary to work with infectious diseases such as Lassa, there are only 10 labs in the United States authorized to work on the virus. Soto has partnered with a lab at the University of Texas where she will send her test strips. If they work, she has the capacity to assemble about 100 kits at her facility here, which would then have to undergo clinical trials.

There is already a rapid-response blood test for Lassa, but this still requires transporting samples to a lab and spinning them down before they can be tested. Soto is designing her kits so that they would be sensitive enough to detect Lassa antibodies in a urine sample within days of infection.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native said she decided to focus on Lassa after the World Health Organization put out a call for a rapid-response test in 2016. Seeing a video of a young woman who had lost several family members, Soto said, made her even more determined.

Lassa, which is transmitted through rats and found mainly in West Africa, kills around 5,000 people each year and sickens hundreds of thousands, although estimates are shaky because it looks a lot like other diseases, including malaria and ebola, and is often misdiagnosed. Symptoms of the infection are treatable with the drug Ribavarin if it is diagnosed early, but it often isn’t.

A rapid-response test would save lives by making diagnoses earlier and more accurately, said Soto, but there isn’t much of a financial incentive to do so.

“Everyone is interested in creating tests for cancer,” Soto said. “These big guys, they don’t care about Lassa. There’s no money there.”

Monoclonals Inc. is the third tenant of the Union River Center for Innovation, a 501 (c)(4) nonprofit organization that was started in 2013. The city of Ellsworth purchased the building near the Harbor Park in 2015 and leases the building to the center, which in turn rents offices and co-working space to members and tenants. Rent starts at about $10 per square foot, and spaces are anywhere between 200 and 500 square feet.

The center is funded with grant money, private investments and city funds. Just over half of this money comes from grants and private investors, with the rest split roughly between city and rental income, said Ellsworth Business Development Coordinator Micki Sumpter.

Sumpter said the tenant application looks at whether or not businesses will be able to create jobs in the area and be sustainable long term. Businesses do not necessarily have to be new, but “they have to be a business that needs help,” along with meeting all of the other criteria. Tenants get access to high-speed internet, workshops, interns and business coaching services.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]