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In The Fight Against COVID-19, Labs Look To Create Coronavirus Antibodies


Viral infections can be hard to treat, but that is no deterrent to the dozens of groups around the world searching for an effective therapy against the new coronavirus. What's more, as NPR's Joe Palca reports, they are cautiously optimistic they'll find one.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: It's unlikely researchers will ever find one drug that can treat all viral infections.

MARK DENISON: Every virus is sort of like a dysfunctional family. They're dysfunctional in their own unique ways.

PALCA: Mark Denison is a virologist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He says there are two basic approaches to stopping viral infections. One is to block an enzyme the virus needs to survive. And there are a lot of enzymes a virus needs to survive.

DENISON: And so protease, polymerase, exonuclease, endonuclease, cap inhibitors, you name it, right? So we want to find things that target every function.

PALCA: Right now, an experimental antiviral drug known as Remdesivir that gums up a virus's ability to replicate is being tested in China. There may also be some FDA-approved drugs that will have the desired blocking effect on one of the new virus's critical enzymes.

A second approach is to give people drugs made from antibodies known to stop a particular virus. That's the approach a Canadian biotech firm called AbCellera is involved in. Ester Falconer is head of research and development at AbCellera.

ESTER FALCONER: We're trying to identify antibodies from patients who have recovered from infection because their finely tuned immune systems have already figured out a way to clear the virus.

PALCA: Falconer says her company has developed a lab on a chip that can rapidly analyze the blood from a recovered patient.

FALCONER: So we can, very quickly, in a less than a day, look through many millions of different immune cells.

PALCA: And find antibodies that might make a successful drug. The biotech firm Regeneron is also looking for antibodies, but they're looking for them in mice; not just any mice - mice that have been given what amounts to a human immune system. Regeneron's Christos Kyratsous says these mice make antibodies when you expose them to a virus like the coronavirus. But they don't make mouse antibodies.

CHRISTOS KYRATSOUS: They are basically making fully human antibodies. We've created a mini-human immune response in a mouse.

PALCA: Kyratsous says using mice, they can generate many different antibodies. They've begun exposing their mice to a virus that mimics the new coronavirus.

KYRATSOUS: And the mice are mounting an immune response against these components as we speak. So within the next few weeks, we should be able to start harvesting antibodies out of these mice and testing them in these in vitro assets (ph).

PALCA: Regeneron and AbCellera are just two of the many companies and university research labs that are working on finding a treatment for COVID-19. But Vanderbilt's Mark Denison says it's not enough just to stop the virus. You have to stop the damage to the lungs the virus causes. Denison says it's tempting to try to use anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids, but that can actually make things worse.

DENISON: But if we understood ways that the coronavirus has caused lung disease, we might be able to block that damage while we're treating the virus.

PALCA: Denison is confident that understanding will come. He says the recent outbreak has underscored the need to come up with new ideas about how to treat outbreaks caused by new viruses. And he says those ideas are coming and will speed up the usual time it takes to develop new drugs.

DENISON: I don't think about a decade. I think about this in terms of right now. We're in a position to try to move forward quickly with these ideas.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORSTEN'S "FLEUR BLANCHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.