A team led by Scripps Research has discovered antibodies in the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients that provide powerful protection against the disease when tested in animals and human cell cultures.
The research, published Monday in the journal Science, sets the stage for clinical trials and additional tests of the antibodies, which are now being produced as potential treatments and preventives for COVID-19.
“The discovery of these very potent antibodies represents an extremely rapid response to a totally new pathogen,” said study co-senior author Dennis Burton, the James and Jessie Minor Chair in Immunology in the Department of Immunology & Microbiology.
In principle, injections of such antibodies could be given to patients in the early stage of COVID-19 to reduce the level of virus and protect against severe disease. The antibodies also may be used to provide temporary, vaccine-like protection for healthcare workers, elderly people and others who respond poorly to traditional vaccines or are suspected of a recent exposure to the coronavirus.
The project was led by groups at Scripps Research; IAVI, a nonprofit scientific research organization dedicated to addressing urgent, unmet global health challenges; and the UC San Diego School of Medicine.
“It has been a tremendous collaborative effort, and we’re now focused on making large quantities of these promising antibodies for clinical trials,” said co-lead author Thomas Rogers, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Immunology & Microbiology at Scripps Research, and assistant professor of medicine at UC San Diego.
For the project, Rogers took blood samples from patients who had recovered from mild-to-severe COVID-19. In parallel, scientists at Scripps Research and IAVI developed test cells that express ACE2, the receptor that the virus uses to get into human cells. The team then tested whether antibody-containing blood from the patients could bind to the virus and strongly block it from infecting the test cells.
The scientists were able to isolate more than 1,000 distinct antibody-producing immune cells, called B cells, each of which produced a distinct antibody. By screening these antibodies individually, the team identified several that, even in tiny quantities, could block the virus in test cells, and one that could also protect hamsters against heavy viral exposure.
All of this work—including the development of the cell and animal infection models, and studies to discover where the antibodies of interest bind the virus—was completed in less than seven weeks.
If further safety tests in animals and clinical trials in people go well, then conceivably the antibodies could be used in clinical settings as early as next January, the researchers said.
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