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Charting a Rapid Course Toward Better COVID-19 Tests and Treatments

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Point of care anti
Credit: Quidel; iStock/xavierarnau

It is becoming apparent that our country is entering a new and troubling phase of the pandemic as SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, continues to spread across many states and reaches into both urban and rural communities. This growing community spread is hard to track because up to 40 percent of infected people seem to have no symptoms. They can pass the virus quickly and unsuspectingly to friends and family members who might be more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill. That’s why we should all be wearing masks when we go out of the house—none of us can be sure we’re not that asymptomatic carrier of the virus.

This new phase makes fast, accessible, affordable diagnostic testing a critical first step in helping people and communities. In recognition of this need, NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, just initiated in late April, has issued an urgent call to the nation’s inventors and innovators to develop fast, easy-to-use tests for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It brought a tremendous response, and NIH selected about 100 of the best concepts for an intense one-week “shark-tank” technology evaluation process.

Moving ahead at an unprecedented pace, NIH last week announced the first RADx projects to come through the deep dive with flying colors and enter the scale-up process necessary to provide additional rapid testing capacity to the U.S. public. As part of the RADx initiative, seven biomedical technology companies will receive a total of $248.7 million in federal stimulus funding to accelerate their efforts to scale up new lab-based and point-of-care technologies.

Four of these projects will aim to bolster the nation’s lab-based COVID-19 diagnostics capacity by tens of thousands of tests per day as soon as September and by millions by the end of the year. The other three will expand point-of-care testing for COVID-19, making results more rapidly and readily available in doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics, long-term care facilities, schools, child care centers, or even at home.

This is only a start, and we expect that more RADx projects will advance in the coming months and begin scaling up for wide-scale use. In the meantime, here’s an overview of the first seven projects developed through the initiative, which NIH is carrying out in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and the Department of Defense:

Point-of-Care Testing Approaches

Mesa Biotech. Hand-held testing device detects the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2. Results are read from a removable, single-use cartridge in 30 minutes.

Quidel. Test kit detects protein (viral antigen) from SARS-CoV-2. Electronic analyzers provide results within 15 minutes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service has identified this technology for possible use in nursing homes.

Talis Biomedical. Compact testing instrument uses a multiplexed cartridge to detect the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 through isothermal amplification. Optical detection system delivers results in under 30 minutes.

Lab-based Testing Approaches

Ginkgo Bioworks. Automated system uses next-generation sequencing to scan patient samples for SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material. This system will be scaled up to make it possible to process tens of thousands of tests simultaneously and deliver results within one to two days. The company’s goal is to scale up to 50,000 tests per day in September and 100,000 per day by the end of 2020.

Helix OpCo. By combining bulk shipping of test kits and patient samples, automation, and next-generation sequencing of genetic material, the company’s goal is to process up to 50,000 samples per day by the end of September and 100,000 per day by the end of 2020.

Fluidigm. Microfluidics platform with the capacity to process thousands of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material per day. The company’s goal is to scale up this platform and deploy advanced integrated fluidic chips to provide tens to hundreds of thousands of new tests per day in the fall of 2020. Most tests will use saliva.

Mammoth Biosciences. System uses innovative CRISPR gene-editing technology to detect key pieces of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in patient samples. The company’s goal is to provide a multi-fold increase in testing capacity in commercial laboratories.

At the same time, on the treatment front, significant strides continue to be made by a remarkable public-private partnership called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). Since its formation in May, the partnership, which involves 20 biopharmaceutical companies, academic experts, and multiple federal agencies, has evaluated hundreds of therapeutic agents with potential application for COVID-19 and prioritized the most promising candidates.

Among the most exciting approaches are monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), which are biologic drugs derived from neutralizing antibodies isolated from people who’ve survived COVID-19. This week, the partnership launched two trials (one for COVID-19 inpatients, the other for COVID-19 outpatients) of a mAB called LY-CoV555, which was developed by Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN. It was discovered by Lilly’s development partner AbCellera Biologics Inc. Vancouver, Canada, in collaboration with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In addition to the support from ACTIV, both of the newly launched studies also receive support for Operation Warp Speed, the government’s multi-agency effort against COVID-19.

LY-CoV555 was derived from the immune cells of one of the very first survivors of COVID-19 in the United States. It targets the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, blocking it from attaching to human cells.

The first trial, which will look at both the safety and efficacy of the mAb for treating COVID-19, will involve about 300 individuals with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are hospitalized at facilities that are part of existing clinical trial networks. These volunteers will receive either an intravenous infusion of LY-CoV555 or a placebo solution. Five days later, their condition will be evaluated. If the initial data indicate that LY-CoV555 is safe and effective, the trial will transition immediately—and seamlessly—to enrolling an additional 700 participants with COVID-19, including some who are severely ill.

The second trial, which will evaluate how LY-CoV555 affects the early course of COVID-19, will involve 220 individuals with mild to moderate COVID-19 who don’t need to be hospitalized. In this study, participants will randomly receive either an intravenous infusion of LY-CoV555 or a placebo solution, and will be carefully monitored over the next 28 days. If the data indicate that LY-CoV555 is safe and shortens the course of COVID-19, the trial will then enroll an additional 1,780 outpatient volunteers and transition to a study that will more broadly evaluate its effectiveness.

Both trials are later expected to expand to include other experimental therapies under the same master study protocol. Master protocols allow coordinated and efficient evaluation of multiple investigational agents at multiple sites as the agents become available. These protocols are designed with a flexible, rapidly responsive framework to identify interventions that work, while reducing administrative burden and cost.

In addition, Lilly this week started a separate large-scale safety and efficacy trial to see if LY-CoV555 can be used to prevent COVID-19 in high-risk residents and staff at long-term care facilities. The study isn’t part of ACTIV.

NIH-funded researchers have been extremely busy over the past seven months, pursuing every avenue we can to detect, treat, and, ultimately, end this devasting pandemic. Far more work remains to be done, but as RADx and ACTIV exemplify, we’re making rapid progress through collaboration and a strong, sustained investment in scientific innovation.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

Video: NIH RADx Delivering New COVID-19 Testing Technologies to Meet U.S. Demand (YouTube)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

Explaining Operation Warp Speed (U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources/Washington, D.C.)

NIH delivering new COVID-19 testing technologies to meet U.S. demand,” NIH news release,” July 31, 2020.

NIH launches clinical trial to test antibody treatment in hospitalized COVID-19 patients,” NIH new release, August 4, 2020.

NIH clinical trial to test antibodies and other experimental therapeutics for mild and moderate COVID-19,” NIH news release, August 4, 2020.


Researchers Publish Encouraging Early Data on COVID-19 Vaccine

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Diagram of how mRNA vaccine works
Credit: NIH

People all around the globe are anxiously awaiting development of a safe, effective vaccine to protect against the deadly threat of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Evidence is growing that biomedical research is on track to provide such help, and to do so in record time.

Just two days ago, in a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine [1], researchers presented encouraging results from the vaccine that’s furthest along in U.S. human testing: an innovative approach from NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), in partnership with Moderna Inc., Cambridge, MA [1]. The centerpiece of this vaccine is a small, non-infectious snippet of messenger RNA (mRNA). Injecting this mRNA into muscle will spur a person’s own body to make a key viral protein, which, in turn, will encourage the production of protective antibodies against SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

While it generally takes five to 10 years to develop a vaccine against a new infectious agent, we simply don’t have that time with a pandemic as devastating as COVID-19. Upon learning of the COVID-19 outbreak in China early this year, and seeing the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 appear on the internet, researchers with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) carefully studied the viral instructions, focusing on the portion that codes for a spike protein that the virus uses to bind to and infect human cells.

Because of their experience with the original SARS virus back in the 2000s, they thought a similar approach to vaccine development would work and modified an existing design to reflect the different sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Literally within days, they had created a vaccine in the lab. They then went on to work with Moderna, a biotech firm that’s produced personalized cancer vaccines. All told, it took just 66 days from the time the genome sequence was made available in January to the start of the first-in-human study described in the new peer-reviewed paper.

In the NIH-supported phase 1 human clinical trial, researchers found the vaccine, called mRNA-1273, to be safe and generally well tolerated. Importantly, human volunteers also developed significant quantities of neutralizing antibodies that target the virus in the right place to block it from infecting their cells.

Conducted at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, Seattle; and Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, the trial led by Kaiser Permanente’s Lisa Jackson involved healthy adult volunteers. Each volunteer received two vaccinations in the upper arm at one of three doses, given approximately one month apart.

The volunteers will be tracked for a full year, allowing researchers to monitor their health and antibody production. However, the recently published paper provides interim data on the phase 1 trial’s first 45 participants, ages 18 to 55, for the first 57 days after their second vaccination. The data revealed:

• No volunteers suffered serious adverse events.

• Optimal dose to elicit high levels of neutralizing antibody activity, while also protecting patient safety, appears to be 100 micrograms. Doses administered in the phase 1 trial were either 25, 100, or 250 micrograms.

• More than half of the volunteers reported fatigue, headache, chills, muscle aches, or pain at the injection site. Those symptoms were most common after the second vaccination and in volunteers who received the highest vaccine dose. That dose will not be used in larger trials.

• Two doses of 100 micrograms of the vaccine prompted a robust immune response, which was last measured 43 days after the second dose. These responses were actually above the average levels seen in blood samples from people who had recovered from COVID-19.

These encouraging results are being used to inform the next rounds of human testing of the mRNA-1273 vaccine. A phase 2 clinical trial is already well on its way to recruiting 600 healthy adults.This study will continue to profile the vaccine’s safety, as well as its ability to trigger an immune response.

Meanwhile, later this month, a phase 3 clinical trial will begin enrolling 30,000 volunteers, with particular focus on recruitment in regions and populations that have been particularly hard hit by the virus.

The design of that trial, referred to as a “master protocol,” had major contributions from the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccine (ACTIV) initiative, a remarkable public-private partnership involving 20 biopharmaceutical companies, academic experts, and multiple federal agencies. Now, a coordinated effort across the U.S. government, called Operation Warp Speed, is supporting rapid conduct of these clinical trials and making sure that millions of doses of any successful vaccine will be ready if the vaccine proves save and effective.

Results of this first phase 3 trial are expected in a few months. If you are interested in volunteering for these or other prevention trials, please check out NIH’s new COVID-19 clinical trials network.

There’s still a lot of work that remains to be done, and anything can happen en route to the finish line. But by pulling together, and leaning on the very best science, I am confident that we will be able rise to the challenge of ending this pandemic that has devastated so many lives.

Reference:

[1] A SARS-CoV-2 mRNA Vaccine—Preliminary Report. Jackson LA, Anderson EJ, Rouphael NG, Ledgerwood JE, Graham BS, Beigel JH, et al. NEJM. 2020 July 14. [Publication ahead of print]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Moderna, Inc. (Cambridge, MA)

Safety and Immunogenicity Study of 2019-nCoV Vaccine (mRNA-1273) for Prophylaxis of SARS-CoV-2 Infection (COVID-19) (ClinicalTrials.gov)

NIH Launches Clinical Trials Network to Test COVID-19 Vaccines and Other Prevention Tools,” NIAID News Release, NIH, July 8, 2020.

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)

Explaining Operation Warp Speed (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Study in Primates Finds Acquired Immunity Prevents COVID-19 Reinfections

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SARS-CoV-2 and Antibodies

There have been rare reports of people recovering from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, only to test positive a second time. Such results might be explained by reports that the virus can linger in our systems. Yet some important questions remain: Is it possible that people could beat this virus only to get reinfected a short time later? How long does immunity last after infection? And what can we expect about the duration of protection from a vaccine?

A recent study of rhesus macaques, which are among our close primate relatives, offers relevant insights into the first question. In a paper published in the journal Science, researchers found that after macaques recover from mild SARS-CoV-2 infection, they are protected from reinfection—at least for a while.

In work conducted in the lab of Chuan Qin, Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, China, six macaques were exposed to SARS-CoV-2. Following infection, the animals developed mild-to-moderate illness, including pneumonia and evidence of active infection in their respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Twenty-eight days later, when the macaques had cleared the infection and started recovering, four animals were re-exposed to the same strain of SARS-CoV-2. The other two served as controls, with researchers monitoring their continued recovery.

Qin’s team noted that after the second SARS-CoV-2 exposure, the four macaques developed a transient fever that had not been seen after their first infection. No other signs of reinfection were observed or detected in chest X-rays, and the animals tested negative for active virus over a two-week period.

While more study is needed to understand details of the immune responses, researchers did detect a reassuring appearance of antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in the macaques over the course of the first infection. The spike protein is what the virus uses to attach to macaque and human cells before infecting them.

Of interest, levels of those neutralizing antibodies were even higher two weeks after the second viral challenge than they were two weeks after the initial exposure. However, researchers note that it remains unclear which factors specifically were responsible for the observed protection against reinfection, and apparently the first exposure was sufficient.

Since the second viral challenge took place just 28 days after the first infection, this study provides a rather limited window into broad landscape of SARS-CoV-2 infection and recovery. Consequently, it will be important to determine to what extent a first infection might afford protection over the course of months and even years. Also, because the macaques in this study developed only mild-to-moderate COVID-19, more research is needed to investigate what happens after recovery from more severe COVID-19.

Of course, macaques are not humans. Nevertheless, the findings lend hope that COVID-19 patients who develop acquired immunity may be at low risk for reinfection, at least in the short term. Additional studies are underway to track people who came down with COVID-19 in New York during March and April to see if any experience reinfection. By the end of this year, we should have better answers.

Reference:

[1] Primary exposure to SARS-CoV-2 protects against reinfection in rhesus macaques. Deng W, Bao L, Liu J, et al. Science. 2020 Jul 2. [Published online ahead of print].

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Qin Lab (Peking Union Medical College, Beijing, China)


Finding Antibodies that Neutralize SARS-CoV-2

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Neutralizing Antibodies
Caption: Model of three neutralizing antibodies (blue, purple and orange) bound to the spike protein, which allows SARS-CoV-2 attach to our cells. Credit: Christopher Barnes and Pamela Bjorkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

It’s now clear that nearly everyone who recovers from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) produces antibodies that specifically target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the infection. Yet many critical questions remain. A major one is: just how well do those particular antibodies neutralize the virus to fight off the infection and help someone recover from COVID-19? Fortunately, most people get better—but should the typical antibody response take the credit?

A new NIH-funded study of nearly 150 people who recovered from COVID-19 offers some essential insight. The study, published in the journal Nature, shows that most people, in fact, do produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But there is a catch: 99 percent of the study’s participants didn’t make enough neutralizing antibodies to mount an ideal immune response.

The good news is that when researchers looked at individuals who mounted a strong immune response, they were able to identify three antibodies (depicted above) that were extremely effective at neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. By mass-producing copies of these antibodies as so-called monoclonal antibodies, the researchers can now better evaluate their potential as treatments to help people who don’t make strongly neutralizing antibodies, or not enough of them.

These findings come from a team led by Michel Nussenzweig, Paul Bieniasz, and Charles Rice at The Rockefeller University, New York, and Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In the Nussenzweig lab, the team has spent years searching for broadly neutralizing antibodies against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its great urgency, Nussenzweig and team shifted their focus recently to look for promising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Antibodies are blood proteins that the immune system makes to neutralize viruses or other foreign invaders. The immune system doesn’t make just one antibody to thwart an invader; it makes a whole family of antibodies. But not all antibodies in that family are created equal. They can vary widely in where they latch onto a virus like SARS-CoV-2, and that determines how effective each will be at blocking it from infecting human cells. That’s one reason why people respond differently to infections such as COVID-19.

In early April, Nussenzweig’s team began analyzing samples from volunteer survivors who visited The Rockefeller Hospital to donate plasma, which contains the antibodies. The volunteers had all recovered from mild-to-severe cases of COVID-19, showing their first signs of illness about 40 days prior to their first plasma collection.

Not surprisingly, all volunteers had produced antibodies in response to the virus. To test the strength of the antibodies, the researchers used a special assay that shows how effective each one is at blocking the virus from infecting human cells in lab dishes.

Overall, most of the plasma samples—118 of 149—showed at best poor to modest neutralizing activity. In about one-third of individuals, their plasma samples had below detectable levels of neutralizing activity. It’s possible those individuals just resolved the infection quickly, before more potent antibodies were produced.

More intriguing to the researchers were the results from two individuals that showed an unusually strong ability to neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Among these two “elite responders” and four other individuals, the researchers identified 40 different antibodies that could neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But again, not all antibodies are created equal. Three neutralized the virus even when present at extremely low levels, and they now will be studied further as possible monoclonal antibodies.

The team determined that those strongly neutralizing antibodies bind three distinct sites on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the coronavirus spike protein. This portion of the virus is important because it allows SARS-CoV-2 to bind and infect human cells. Importantly, when the researchers looked more closely at plasma samples with poor neutralizing ability, they found that they also contained those RBD-binding antibodies, just not in very large numbers.

These findings help not only to understand the immune response to COVID-19, they are also critical for vaccine design, revealing what a strong neutralizing antibody for SARS-CoV-2 should look like to help the immune system win. If a candidate vaccine can generate such strongly neutralizing antibodies, researchers will know that they are on the right track.

While this research showed that there’s a lot of variability in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, it appears that most of us are inherently capable of producing antibodies to neutralize this devastating virus. That brings more reason for hope that the many vaccines now under study to elicit such neutralizing antibodies in sufficient numbers may afford us with much-needed immune protection.

Reference:

[1] Convergent antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in convalescent individuals. Robbiani DF, Gaebler C, Muecksch F, et al. Nature. 2020 Jun 18. [Published online ahead of print].

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

Nussenzweig Lab (The Rockefeller University, New York)

Bjorkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


NIH’s All of Us Program Joins Fight Against COVID-19

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We’ve learned so much about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), but there’s still much more that we need to learn in order to defeat this devastating pandemic. Among the critical questions: why do some young people who appear healthy and have no history of chronic disease get very sick from the virus? And why do some people in their 80s or 90s seemingly just shrug off the infection? There’s something going on biologically, but we don’t yet have the answers.

We do, however, have some resources that will enable us to examine lots of data in search of biological clues. One of them is NIH’s All of Us Research Program, which is seeking the help of 1 million people to build one of the most diverse health databases in our nation’s history. Two years after its national launch, the program already has enrolled nearly 350,000 diverse participants from across the United States.

As its name suggests, All of Us is open to all people over age 18 in communities all around the country. An important strength of the effort has been welcoming participants from all backgrounds. Indeed, about 75 percent of people who have volunteered for the program come from groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in medical research. That includes people from many racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those of many different ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and geographic locations, including remote and rural areas.

Because of COVID-19 and the need for physical distancing to curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus, All of Us has been forced to halt temporarily all in-person appointments. But program leaders, including Josh Denny, chief executive officer of All of Us, and Kelly Gebo, the program’s chief medical and scientific officer, saw an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and help during this unprecedented public health challenge. In fact, Gebo reports that they’d already been hearing from many of their participant partners that they wanted to be a part of the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To rise to this challenge, the All of Us Research Program has just announced three initiatives to assist the scientific community in seeking new insights into COVID-19. The program will:

• Test blood samples from 10,000 or more participants for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, indicating prior infection. The testing will start on samples collected in March 2020 and work backward until positive tests are no longer found. This will show the prevalence of novel coronavirus exposure among All of Us participants from across the country, allowing researchers to sift through the data and assess the varying rates and timing of infections across regions and communities.

• Rapidly collect relevant information from more than 200,000 participants who have shared their electronic health records. A number of those participants have already either been diagnosed with COVID-19 or sought health care for related symptoms. The program is working to standardize this information. It will help researchers look for patterns and learn more about COVID-19 symptoms and associated health problems, as well as the effects of different medicines and treatments.

• Deploy a new online survey to understand better the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on participants’ physical and mental health. This 20- to 30-minute survey is designed both for participants who have been ill with COVID-19 and those who have not knowingly been infected. Questions will be included on COVID-19 symptoms, stress, social distancing and the economic impacts of the pandemic. Participants are invited to take the survey each month until the pandemic ends, so researchers can study the effects of COVID-19 over time and begin to better understand how and why COVID-19 affects people differently.

As this data becomes available, researchers will look for new leads to inform our efforts to bring greater precision to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of COVID-19, including for those communities that have been hit the hardest. Another hope is that what is learned about COVID-19 through All of Us and other NIH-supported research will provide us with the knowledge and tools we need to avert future pandemics,

In case you’re wondering, I happen to be among the thousands of people who’ve already volunteered to take part in All of Us. If you’d like to get involved too, new participants are always welcome to join.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

All of Us Research Program (NIH)

Join All of Us (NIH)


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