Pitt-UPMC Experts Share Promising Breakthrough in COVID-19 Drug Development

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Researchers from UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have isolated a tiny antibody component that completely neutralizes SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists are using the antibody component to create a drug, Ab8, that could be used to treat and prevent COVID-19. The disease is responsible for tens of millions of illnesses and more than a million deaths worldwide since late 2019.

Abound Bio, a newly formed company backed by UPMC, has licensed Ab8 for worldwide development.

Ab8 has been effective in treating and preventing COVID-19 in mice and hamsters. Clinical trials in other animals and potentially in humans could begin in early 2021, pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“This is extraordinary and highly promising work,” says Steven Shapiro, MD, chief medical and scientific officer, UPMC.

“And it could lead to a drug that both treats and prevents COVID-19, and one that we hope will prove extremely safe and easy to administer.”

UPMC Discovers Antibody Against COVID-19

Your body’s immune system produces antibodies to fight off infectious diseases. Some antibodies can remain in your system afterward, providing future immunity against that specific disease.

Scientists also can discover and develop monoclonal antibodies in the lab. These manufactured antibodies can be used as a treatment for some diseases.

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine scientists discovered a tiny antibody component — 10 times smaller than a full-sized antibody — that neutralizes SARS-CoV-2 in some animals. They isolated it by “fishing” from a pool of 100 billion potential candidates.

“We want to find one which just binds very, very, very strongly to the viral protein,” says Dimiter Dimitrov, PhD, director of the Center for Antibody at Therapeutics at Pitt, where research took place.

After discovering this tiny antibody component, which specifically targets to SARS-CoV-2, scientists used it to construct Ab8.

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What Is Ab8?

Ab8 contains the tiny antibody component that neutralizes SARS-CoV-2. The small size of Ab8 can allow it to penetrate into areas that larger antibodies can’t get into.

The drug is “extremely potent,” says John Mellors, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UPMC and Pitt. It also came from human antibodies, which makes it less likely to be rejected, and it does not bind to human cells, which indicates it shouldn’t cause negative side effects in people.

“Ab8 not only has potential as therapy for COVID-19, but it also could be used to keep people from getting SARS-CoV-2 infections,” Dr. Mellors says. “Antibodies of larger size have worked against other infectious diseases and have been well-tolerated, giving us hope that it could be an effective treatment for patients with COVID-19 and for protection of those who have never had the infection and are not immune.”

Ab8’s small size also could make it possible to deliver the drug in methods like inhalation and intradermal injection through layers of the skin. Traditional antibody therapies are delivered intravenously.

The drug showed positive results against COVID-19 in mice and hamsters. Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, University of British Columbia, and University of Saskatchewan helped to test it.

When Will Ab8 Be Ready for Use?

Upon FDA approval, further clinical trials of Ab8 can begin.

Human clinical trials have several phases, starting with a very small group of people and getting progressively larger. Researchers test a medicine’s safety and effectiveness and compare it to standard or similar treatments. The FDA reviews results of the trial and can approve it for widespread use if it is safe and effective.

Clinical trials of potential COVID-19 vaccines also are underway, with some taking place at UPMC.

How Is Ab8 Different Than a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Antibody treatments like Ab8 are different than vaccines, although some antibody therapies can help prevent diseases.

Unlike vaccines, antibodies can be used to treat people who are already sick. Antibodies also may help people who can’t get vaccinated or whose immune systems don’t have a strong response to vaccines, such as older adults or people with compromised immune systems.

However, vaccines generally provide longer-lasting protection and are more cost-effective.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing widespread illness and death, antibody treatments like Ab8 could prove important until a vaccine is approved and ready for wide use.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global challenge facing humanity, but biomedical science and human ingenuity are likely to overcome it,” Dr. Mellors says. “We hope that the antibodies we have discovered will contribute to that triumph.”

National Institutes of Health, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, The Basics. https://www.nih.gov/health-information/nih-clinical-research-trials-you/basics

UPMC, Tiny Antibody Component Highly Effective Against COVID-19. https://www.upmc.com/media/news/091420-mellors-dimitrov-covid-ab8

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.