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Scripps Research discovers antibodies that might be able to treat COVID-19

Scripps Research found antibodies that might be useful in fighting COVID-19.
(National Institutes of Health)

Scripps Research in La Jolla has discovered a handful of human antibodies that neutralize the COVID-19 coronavirus in cell cultures and hamsters, a possible step toward creating a drug to fight the virus.

The discovery, published in the journal Science, could lead to drug trials in humans in early 2021 and perhaps sooner, Scripps says.

Immunologist Dennis Burton found the potentially useful antibodies in the blood of patients who have recovered from COVID-19. He was conducting the kind of search that’s rapidly being carried out around the world. Scientists say they might be able to develop drug-based antibodies against COVID-19 faster than they can create a vaccine.

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.

Singapore’s DSO National Laboratories announced June 17 that it discovered five antibodies that appear to have the ability to stop the virus from spreading. Clinical trials are pending.

The news out of La Jolla stirred excitement.

“The discovery of these very potent antibodies represents an extremely rapid response to a totally new pathogen,” said Burton, who collaborated on the study with UC San Diego and IAVI, a nonprofit research group based in New York.

“There is reason for cautious optimism.”

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

Scientists have used antibodies to treat everything from cancer to multiple sclerosis to heart disease and ulcerative colitis. It’s a common area of study because the human immune system produces antibodies that identify and try to neutralize an array of potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and chemicals.

But there is a lot of variability.

Some people do not produce antibodies that vigorously fight the coronavirus. Others do. So scientists began screening the blood of patients who recovered from mild to severe COVID-19 this year. Over a seven-week period, researchers explored more than 1,000 antibodies, looking for ones that clearly have the ability to prevent the virus from infecting cells.

The team came away with two dozen promising candidates, which also vary in their ability to fight the virus.

Following the efforts of a UC San Diego lab to create and confirm validity of a test for COVID-19 antibodies, a local company is making that test available to the public starting Wednesday, May 20.

Scripps says it is most interested in developing antibodies that can be given to to patients shortly after they’ve been infected, to reduce the amount of virus in their bodies and prevent things from getting worse.

“The single most important thing to note is that humans make very good neutralizing antibodies against this virus,” Burton said. “And they do so quickly.”

In 2009, Burton published a landmark study that identified the first two antibodies that have a neutralizing effect on HIV.

He said current antibody research suggests scientists will be able to develop an injectable drug to treat people with COVID-19. He also said it might be possible to use antibodies to prevent people from contracting the virus for a limited period and that this research will help researchers figure out how to design a long-lasting vaccine that can be broadly used by the public.

UC San Diego says technology known as “nanosponges” developed by its engineers could work as a decoy to attract the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and divert it from infecting human cells.

Scripps will continue to refine the details of its new discovery. But it is likely the institute will have the pharmaceutical industry manufacture larger, more robust versions of the antibodies for use in human trials. ◆