DARPA pursuing antibody research to fend off coronavirus

DARPA is working on a new antibody-based treatment for the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Almost everyone has had a vaccine. The lifesaving injections provide immunity against killer diseases for years or even a lifetime. Sadly, there is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, that is sweeping across the globe.

Although researchers are working on one, the U.S. government is dreaming up a more immediate solution. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pioneering an antibody-based treatment that would give first-responders and healthcare workers instant immunity to the new coronavirus—if things go according to plan.

Using Mother Nature

When the body is assaulted by a pathogen that it has come into contact with before, legions of antibodies rush to kill the invader. However, when a new virus (like Covid-19) comes around, the body only has basic defenses.

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The DARPA researchers want to create synthetic antibodies in the lab that work like a vaccine to provide near-instant immunity. While vaccines are a more effective solution in the long-term, this antibody approach could provide front line individuals with a safeguard against the new coronavirus. The agency aims to reproduce antibodies against the deadly virus within 60 days.

It will do so with the help of AbCellera, a biotech firm located in Vancouver, and a blood sample from an American patient infected with Covid-19 recently obtained by researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The sample could be the key to unlocking an antibody treatment that prevents others from catching the virus.

Inside Antibody Production

A lab inside AbCellera’s headquarters will soon become the epicenter of an international crusade against the new coronavirus. The aforementioned blood sample is making its way there now. Once it arrives, it will be put into a microfluid chip the size of a credit card.

That device will identify millions of white blood cells and isolate them into their own chamber. It then records hourly images of every cell to look for evidence of antibodies produced against Covid-19.

AbCellera’s CEO Carl Hansen says, “We can check every single cell within hours that it comes out of the patient. Now with a single patient sample we can generate 400 antibodies in a single day of screening.”

DARPA is supporting AbCellera’s work with a four-year, $35 million grant. The partnership is tied in with the agency’s Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3). It aims to “rapidly halt the spread of any infectious disease outbreak before it can escalate into a pandemic.” Other partner institutions include Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and MedImmune.

Amy Jenkins is the program manager at DARPA’s biological technologies office. Regarding the coronavirus antibody project, she says, “Once we have the antibodies isolated, then we can give them back to people who are not yet sick. It’s similar to a vaccine and will prevent infection. The difference is that vaccines will last a long time. Our approach is immediate immunity and doesn’t last as long.”

Working Uphill

While it sounds great in theory, developing antibodies to treat a deadly virus isn’t a simple undertaking. One major issue thus far is that only one of 15 U.S. patients infected with Covid-19 has agreed to donate a blood sample. Despite the ambitious attitudes of DARPA’s partner research teams, a lack of samples is slowing down progress.

Still, the agency remains hopeful that it will be able to promptly produce an antibody “vaccine.”

Unfortunately, the work doesn’t stop there. Once the team finds an antibody that is effective against the Covid-19 coronavirus, it will need to be mass-produced.

James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center says, “Scaling to a million doses of antibody product is a heavy lift to do in a few months. We don’t have scaling capacity for therapeutics or prophylaxis in that time frame. In two years, we could get to that point.”

Of course, if anyone is capable of doing the impossible, it’s DARPA. The Pentagon’s oft-secretive research program has plenty of resources at its disposal and battling the coronavirus is a top priority.

The teams involved plan to deploy high-tech tools that image and screen cells using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) pattern recognition. For instance, AbCellera’s system can identify a single perfect antibody out of millions of photos.

Positive Outlook for Success

Vanderbilt’s Robert Carnahan is among those still waiting for a blood sample containing the new coronavirus. He was part of a team last year that discovered an antibody that stops the spread of the Zika virus in just 78 days. He notes that his research team, much like many people around the globe, is anxious about the threat of a Covid-19 pandemic.

Nonetheless, Carnahan believes that the new antibody method is a bright spot to focus on. He says, “When the human samples become available, things will progress quickly.”

In the days to come, various research teams will work to isolate the genetic code of an antibody (or antibodies) that effectively kill or halt the Covid-19 coronavirus. Using this, they can then begin reproducing the antibodies and turning them into an injection.

Those who receive the treatment would gain instant immunity against the coronavirus. Rather than lasting years like a traditional vaccine, it would only be effective for a few months. However, in the midst of a global outbreak, any form of immunity is better than nothing.

Should the teams find an antibody treatment that works, it will likely be distributed by government health officials. One remaining question is, who will get the injection first? It’s probable that healthcare workers in hospitals treating known cases of the virus would be the most likely candidates. However, it could also be given to the family members of those who test positive.

Yet, things need to be taken one step at a time. As AbCellera receives its blood sample, the world will be waiting for good news from the biotech firm. Thanks to the power and funding of DARPA, a breakthrough could be just around the corner.


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