Harvard Researchers Are Using a Breakthrough Tool to Find the Antibodies That Best Knock Out the Coronavirus
To find a cure for a deadly infectious disease in the 1995 medical thriller Outbreak, scientists extract the virus's antibodies from its original host—an African monkey.
"When a person is infected, the immune system makes antibodies kind of blindly."
The antibodies prevent the monkeys from getting sick, so doctors use these antibodies to make the therapeutic serum for humans. With SARS-CoV-2, the original hosts might be bats or pangolins, but scientists don't have access to either, so they are turning to the humans who beat the virus.
Patients who recovered from COVID-19 are valuable reservoirs of viral antibodies and may help scientists develop efficient therapeutics, says Stephen J. Elledge, professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Studying the structure of the antibodies floating in their blood can help understand what their immune systems did right to kill the pathogen.
When viruses invade the body, the immune system builds antibodies against them. The antibodies work like Velcro strips—they use special spots on their surface called paratopes to cling to the specific spots on the viral shell called epitopes. Once the antibodies circulating in the blood find their "match," they cling on to the virus and deactivate it.
But that process is far from simple. The epitopes and paratopes are built of various peptides that have complex shapes, are folded in specific ways, and may carry an electrical charge that repels certain molecules. Only when all of these parameters match, an antibody can get close enough to a viral particle—and shut it out.
So the immune system forges many different antibodies with varied parameters in hopes that some will work. "When a person is infected, the immune system makes antibodies kind of blindly," Elledge says. "It's doing a shotgun approach. It's not sure which ones will work, but it knows once it's made a good one that works."
Elledge and his team want to take the guessing out of the process. They are using their home-built tool VirScan to comb through the blood samples of the recovered COVID-19 patients to see what parameters the efficient antibodies should have. First developed in 2015, the VirScan has a library of epitopes found on the shells of viruses known to afflict humans, akin to a database of criminals' mug shots maintained by the police.
Originally, VirScan was meant to reveal which pathogens a person overcame throughout a lifetime, and could identify over 1,000 different strains of viruses and bacteria. When the team ran blood samples against the VirScan's library, the tool would pick out all the "usual suspects." And unlike traditional blood tests called ELISA, which can only detect one pathogen at a time, VirScan can detect all of them at once. Now, the team has updated VirScan with the SARS-CoV-2 "mug shot" and is beginning to test which antibodies from the recovered patients' blood will bind to them.
Knowing which antibodies bind best can also help fine-tune vaccines.
Obtaining blood samples was a challenge that caused some delays. "So far most of the recovered patients have been in China and those samples are hard to get," Elledge says. It also takes a person five to 10 days to develop antibodies, so the blood must be drawn at the right time during the illness. If a person is asymptomatic, it's hard to pinpoint the right moment. "We just got a couple of blood samples so we are testing now," he said. The team hopes to get some results very soon.
Elucidating the structure of efficient antibodies can help create therapeutics for COVID-19. "VirScan is a powerful technology to study antibody responses," says Harvard Medical School professor Dan Barouch, who also directs the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research. "A detailed understanding of the antibody responses to COVID-19 will help guide the design of next-generation vaccines and therapeutics."
For example, scientists can synthesize antibodies to specs and give them to patients as medicine. Once vaccines are designed, medics can use VirScan to see if those vaccinated again COVID-19 generate the necessary antibodies.
Knowing which antibodies bind best can also help fine-tune vaccines. Sometimes, viruses cause the immune system to generate antibodies that don't deactivate it. "We think the virus is trying to confuse the immune system; it is its business plan," Elledge says—so those unhelpful antibodies shouldn't be included in vaccines.
More importantly, VirScan can also tell which people have developed immunity to SARS-CoV-2 and can return to their workplaces and businesses, which is crucial to restoring the economy. Knowing one's immunity status is especially important for doctors working on the frontlines, Elledge notes. "The resistant ones can intubate the sick."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”