As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact us all personally and professionally, the amount of scientific brainpower that is being dedicated to solving this crisis has been unprecedented. Over the last several weeks, researchers and companies around the world have been racing to develop a variety of potential solutions, from existing therapeutics to new diagnostics and treatments.
At Adaptive, we recently announced an expanded partnership with Amgen to develop a potential antibody therapy to prevent or treat COVID-19. I’m here to answer some frequently asked questions about the work we’re doing together to address this pandemic.
What are Adaptive and Amgen doing to fight COVID-19?
Through this partnership, we are identifying certain antibodies, called neutralizing antibodies, from the blood of patients who are actively fighting or have recently recovered from COVID-19 and then using those to develop a therapeutic. We are analyzing the immune response to COVID-19 from the blood of some recovered patients to find the best antibodies that could neutralize the virus.
Once we have found the best antibody candidates using our high-throughput screening platform, Amgen will then select, develop and manufacture the strongest antibodies into a therapeutic. If successful, the therapeutic would be used for treating patients fighting the disease, as well as preventing infection in those with heightened exposure, such as healthcare workers.
What is the rationale behind antibody therapy?
We have seen some early successes transfusing convalescent plasma from people who have recovered from the virus to treat those who are fighting severe cases of the disease. However, it isn’t a scalable or sustainable solution to the worldwide problem.
Building on the philosophy behind this approach, we want to leverage what worked in the immune response from survivors and infuse the best of those antibodies into people currently fighting the virus. Adaptive’s technology enables us to find the right antibodies and Amgen’s technology enables a scalable solution – the best of both worlds.
What are neutralizing antibodies, and why are you focused on those vs. other types of antibodies?
Neutralizing antibodies are a special set of antibodies that happen to interfere with the biological function of an invading virus. What makes these antibodies particularly special, and why just one or a few of these antibodies could be packaged into a treatment, is their ability to fight the virus all on their own.
How is Adaptive and Amgen’s approach different from others working on antibody therapies?
While others are working on an antibody solution, there are two distinguishing features about our platform which makes the combined Adaptive/Amgen approach unique.
First, our platform lets the immune system reveal the best antibodies against the virus without restricting our search to a pre-identified target. In contrast, some groups are using biological insights about this virus combined with comparative genomics of related viruses to select targets such as an epitope on the spike protein. This is an excellent hypothesis and lets you reduce your search space massively and move fast and we hope it will work in many patients.
Second, we have the scale and speed to assess a much broader pool of possible antibodies against a wider range of targets. Our platform allows us to look at the full sequence of all of the activated antibodies in patients currently fighting the virus. We then funnel them down through a series of techniques to find those that neutralize most efficaciously. I’ll give you a basketball analogy, since we’re all yearning for some sports: We’re scouting for the “Michael Jordan” of antibodies. With Adaptive’s platform, we can scout more candidates than any other team, at one time, to find the “MVP” of antibodies to neutralize this virus. FYI, I grew up in Chicago. This may also dictate whether we develop a single antibody therapy or a cocktail of antibodies, and when along the treatment continuum neutralizing antibodies specific to COVID-19 might matter most.
Why are you confident this approach will work?
Most RNA viruses, such as influenza and Ebola, mutate quickly. For this reason, single antibody therapies have only had mild success, as you are effectively trying to hit a moving target. However, SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus that mutates more slowly than other RNA viruses. While it does mutate and there is expected to be an increasing number of strains, they are more genetically related to each other. This relative stability lends itself well to a neutralizing antibody therapy, since the virus will be largely the same in most people, and therefore able to be treated with a single antibody therapy.
How do neutralizing antibodies fit with other solutions being developed for COVID-19?
Based on everything we know about this coronavirus, we expect that it will, at some point, transition from being pandemic to endemic. This means there would be an ongoing need for a therapeutic over potentially many years, and most certainly for the foreseeable future.
Ideally, a global vaccine and other effective treatments, including more reliable testing options, will be available in the near future.
In reality, it may take a while to get a vaccine that works broadly and can be administered across the whole world. Even after a vaccine is found, we can expect periodic outbreaks that further the need for therapies as part of the long-term solution paradigm for this virus. In addition, we know that it’s unlikely one treatment solution will work for everyone, especially as we learn more about who is at higher risk for having a harder recovery.
How does this partnership differ with what Adaptive is doing with Microsoft?
Adaptive is harnessing its immune medicine platform to pursue two separate but synergistic applications to combat COVID-19. Using the same immune medicine platform that we are working with to deliver antibody candidates to Amgen, we are also working with Microsoft to decode the T cell response to COVID-19.
What gives you hope?
At Adaptive, we have long believed the immune system holds the key to diagnosing and treating almost all diseases. It’s really encouraging to see so much research and focus in this moment on the immune response to COVID-19.
Additionally, I have never seen more companies set aside their “bottom line” to collectively solve a global crisis. We are incredibly proud and inspired to be in the fight with all those who have committed their brainpower, expertise and resources to defeating COVID-19. It’s not a matter of who gets there first, just that we – all of us – bring the world much-needed solutions for this pandemic and future threats.
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