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La Jolla immunologist searches for coronavirus antibody therapies

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire searches for coronavirus antibodies in her La Jolla Institute for Immunology lab.
(Courtesy)

A local scientist is leading a search for antibodies in the fight to provide immunity from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire, who’s originally from Texas and is now a resident of Solana Beach, is a professor at La Jolla Institute for Immunology. She’s always been drawn to that field and has worked throughout her career to find ways for people to survive lethal diseases.

Saphire just received $100,000 through the Emergent Ventures Fast Grants program to fuel research of how antibody therapeutics can treat COVID-19. She is so far the only Southern California recipient of a Fast Grant.

The funding will support the Coronavirus Immunotherapy Consortium, or CoVIC, launched by the Bill & Melinda Gates COVID-19 Therapeutic Accelerator Platform. Saphire leads CoVIC, which aims to find the most potent antibodies against COVID-19 — work that could guide the development of vaccines against the current outbreak and protect against future pandemics.

A team of UC San Diego scientists is developing a COVID-19 antibody test and is hoping it will provide answers for immediate medical use against the coronavirus that causes the potentially deadly respiratory disease.

Saphire also will use the funds to buy incubators to grow vaccine antigens and antibodies from human cells.

Saphire took time to discuss her work with the Light:

What is the La Jolla Institute for Immunology?

“It’s a nonprofit think tank, and I teach graduate students and Ph.D. trainees in my own lab and research. LJI is a fascinating place to do research. It puts people in the same building who are looking at immunity and immunology from different directions, and it’s a really rich environment. This common core of understanding how the human immune system can cure itself — that is the key to humanity’s survival.”

What were you working on before the coronavirus crisis began?

“A whole bunch of emerging and infectious diseases. My lab works on Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, paramyxoviruses and others. I think paramyxoviruses — the family that includes human pathogens like measles and mumps — might be the next pandemic.

“Then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called and asked me to lead a search for coronavirus antibodies.”

Now you’re leading an international team of scientists in a search for those antibodies. What’s the goal?

“We need a vaccine for COVID yesterday. We’re not going to have it yesterday, or tomorrow. In the meantime, we need a way of giving people immediate immunity.

“The hard way to give someone immunity is they get infected and they get better. The easy way is a vaccine. The other way is antibody therapy.

“For antibody therapy, you first look at the blood of people who have survived for molecules called antibodies, which are the immune warriors, like sentry molecules that seek out the pathogen. They anchor onto it and mechanically inactivate, or neutralize, it. They also alert the rest of the immune system to come destroy the infection, clear the virus and infected cells.

“If you can look at the survivor’s blood and sort out the antibodies, you can figure out the best ones, characterize them in a laboratory, understand them and deliver them as a very pure drug.

“The goal is to figure out what antibodies are going to work and make them available at a large scale to deliver as therapy for immediate immunity. The Gates Foundation in particular is interested in two things: figuring out which are the best therapies that can be advanced to clinical trials. But more importantly, they want to make sure low- and middle-income countries aren’t priced out of them, that we can find the most potent ones to be delivered anywhere in the world.

“It’s really clear now that infectious disease anywhere becomes infectious disease everywhere. We want to make sure we have therapies available for any age and any immune status.”

With whom are you working on this project?

“On my team at LJI, I have Dr. Bjoern Peters, a computational expert, using computational tools to build a live interactive database. Professor Shane Crotty is using information from these antibodies to figure out how to better develop and interpret vaccines.

“There are also a number of groups from maybe 50 different companies and universities working on these antibody therapies, and we analyze and evaluate multiple kinds of experiments for comparison.”

How are you working on the project? Are you allowed into your lab?

“Coronavirus research is considered essential. We’ve got to make these therapies available. A third of my lab and I are working 10 to 12 feet apart in masks to do this work and analyze the structures. The other two-thirds are analyzing data at home on computers.”

How long do you expect the work to take?

“It’s happening faster than this kind of effort has ever happened before, as people are very focused and racing. The first antibody therapies are going to be examined in clinic in June, and the side-by-side broad study will be a step behind. We hope for major answers by August.”

Is there good news to be found in this crisis?

“There’s a lot of good news. There are 40 different vaccine platforms going forward, which is good for the next unknown thing to emerge. We’re also building frameworks by which we can share information. We will have arsenals of drugs and antibodies and vaccines against this virus, which is good because we can expect seasons of this virus and other coronavirus to come back.”

How are you and your family handling the pandemic?

“My husband has taken over our two boys, 9 and 13. He’s grappling with the distance learning and getting them fed and letting me go to work. My kids are pretty happy; the teenager has written some incredible pieces of classical music in his few extra hours a day.

“I’m working 12, 14 hours a day. We catch family time as we have it, but I’ve got to get this done, we’ve got to build this body of information and get these experiments done as fast as we can.”

What do you hope to do once the crisis has abated?

“Professionally, I want to get back to my research on viruses that are 90 [percent] to 100 percent lethal. I have projects that I want to make sure come to fruition.

“Personally, I want to walk on the beach again. That early-morning walk on the beach with a cup of coffee in your hand and misty air just helps you focus and think and get through another day of this.”

— To read more about the work in the Saphire lab and the work of La Jolla Institute for Immunology, visit lji.org.◆