At some point in the next two days, a medical courier will deliver a styrofoam refrigerator to the offices of AbCellera, a biotechnology company based in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. Inside the box, packed in dry ice, there will be a vial of blood prepared by researchers from the US National Institutes of Health. UU., Which was extracted from a patient infected with Covid-19 coronavirus.
The blood sample will be taken to AbCellera’s laboratory and placed on a microfluidic chip the size of a credit card that will isolate millions of white blood cells and each place in a small chamber. Then, the device will record images of each cell every hour, looking for the antibodies that each one produces to fight the coronavirus.
“We can verify each cell in a matter of hours the patient leaves,” says AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen. “Now, with a single patient sample, we can generate 400 antibodies in a single day of detection.”
Antibodies are proteins that the immune system creates to eliminate viruses and other foreign objects from the body. Vaccines work by stimulating the body’s own immune system to produce antibodies against an invading virus. This immunity remains, if the virus attacks again in the future. Vaccines provide protection for years, but they also take a long time to develop. Currently, there is no vaccine that can be used against the virus that causes Covid-19, although pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, based in Cambridge, are working to develop them. Therefore, researchers are investigating whether an infusion of antibodies can only be used as a short-term treatment, but immediately available, to protect doctors and hospital workers, as well as relatives of infected patients who need it. righ now.
The Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, launched its Pandemic Prevention Platform program two years ago with the goal of isolating and reproducing antibodies against new deadly viruses in 60 days. He enlisted researchers from Duke and Vanderbilt medical schools, as well as from AbCellera and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
In preparation for an outbreak such as the coronavirus that now affects China, program scientists tested for viruses responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS). Both are members of the coronavirus family and are closely related to Covid-19.
After isolating these antibodies, the researchers capture their genetic code and use it as a model for mass production. Its objective is to create an antibody treatment that can be injected directly into a patient, giving them an instant boost against the invasive coronavirus.
“We will take the patient’s blood, identify the antibodies and do it very quickly,” said Amy Jenkins, program manager at the Darpa Biological Technologies office, which supports AbCellera’s work with a four-year grant and $ 35 million. “Once we have the isolated antibodies, we can return them to people who are not yet sick. It is similar to a vaccine and prevents infection. The difference is that vaccines will last a long time. Our focus is immediate immunity and it does not last as long. “
If all goes well, said Jenkins, the antibody countermeasure would last several months instead of the years when the vaccines are effective. That said, researchers still need to test the safety and efficacy of this antibody protein in clinical trials in animals and humans.
Of course, developing an antibody treatment is not simple. First, only one of the 15 American patients affected by Covid-19 has so far agreed to donate blood. (China has thousands of infected patients, but American researchers have not been able to get their blood for research here.) That means AbCellera is on the waiting list to get a few drops of that valuable sample, along with several other companies and institutions academics who are partnering with Darpa and the CDC to develop treatments. “We have mobilized our team and we are installing as soon as it arrives,” says Ester Falconer, director of research and development at AbCellera. “We are eager to leave.”