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Pitt Researchers Say Antibody Blocks Coronavirus Infection


University of Pittsburgh and UPMC researchers plan to start human trials early next year for an antibody therapy that might both prevent and treat COVID-19.

The Ab8 antibody component is 10 times smaller than a full-sized antibody, which enables it to better bind to the coronavirus.

“Which means it penetrates into areas of the body where a full-sized antibody may not,” said Dr. John Mellors, chief of infectious diseases, UPMC and Pitt.

Mellors adds that Ab8 is extremely potent and only binds to the coronavirus, as opposed to human cell proteins, indicating that the treatment will be safe.

Dimiter Dimitrov, director of Pitt’s Center for Antibody Therapeutics, describes this discovery of the antibody effect on the coronavirus as a “golden moment” in the life of scientist.

“You’re just so, so excited,” said Dimitrov.

Scientists studied Ab8 in genetically altered mice that have human ACE2 receptors. These receptors, located in the lungs, are where a coronavirus infection first takes hold.

“Think of it as a key and a lock. It prevents the key from getting into the lock, blocking that entryway,” said Mellors.

And when the key, or coronavirus, can’t get it into a cell, it can’t spread.

The researchers stressed that Ab8 is not an alternative to a vaccine, but rather might become one of the tools that will lead to the end of the pandemic. Ab8 poses particular benefits to people who either can’t get vaccinations, perhaps due to egg allergies, or who are less likely to have a robust immune response to a vaccine, such as elderly patients.

“The irony of COVID, is this is a disease of the elderly. The elderly cannot generate, in general, a very good immune response,” said Dr. Steven Shapiro, UPMC’s chief medical and scientific officer — which means older adults and people who have compromised immune systems stand to gain the most from antibody therapies.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.