Led by LJI scientist Erica Ollmann Saphire, the global effort will streamline and accelerate the development of effective treatments for COVID-19

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Credit: La Jolla Institute for Immunology/CoVIC

LA JOLLA, CA–La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) has been awarded a $1.73 million grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish a Coronavirus Immunotherapy Consortium (CoVIC) as part of the foundation’s global efforts to stem the tide of the current coronavirus outbreak, the Institute announced today. Antibody therapies are often the first novel therapies advanced for an emerging infectious disease.

Headquartered at LJI, CoVIC will serve as a clearinghouse to understand which antibodies are most effective against the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and to accelerate the research pipeline to provide immunotherapeutics in order to protect vulnerable individuals from severe manifestations of COVID-19 in all parts of the world including low-resource settings.

This effort is being funded as part of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator launched in early March by the Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard. The Accelerator provides fast and flexible funding at key stages of the development process to de-risk the pathway for drugs and biologics to prevent and treat COVID-19.

The effort is led by Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., a professor in LJI’s Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research, who draws on her broad research experience guiding the development of antibody drugs and galvanizing a global research coalition that helped define which therapeutic antibodies effectively combat disease in humans infected with Ebola virus.

“Antibody therapies represent the most rapid novel therapeutic path forward for emerging viruses such as SARS CoV-2,” says Saphire. “Potent antibody treatments can protect frontline health care workers, contacts, and others who are likely to have been exposed.”

Antibody-based immunotherapies can also treat those who have already become sick, lessening disease and improving survival. The most potent antibodies will provide crucial insights to help guide the development of vaccines to stop the current outbreak and protect against future pandemics.

Unlike your everyday, common-cold-causing coronavirus, every few years a new variant of coronavirus emerges that ravages the body’s organs and the new disease–dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization–is no exception in its most severe manifestation.

The new coronavirus strain is genetically closely related to SARS-CoV, and therefore has been named SARS-CoV-2. For most patients, SARS-CoV-2 causes flu-like symptoms that start out with a fever and cough that progresses to pneumonia. But in the most severe cases, immune cells flood the lungs trying to clear away the damage and repair lung tissue. Normally, this process is highly regulated but when the immune system spirals out of control, healthy tissue is attacked causing even more damage, which can result in respiratory failure highlighting the urgent need for therapeutics that can treat critically ill patients.

CoVIC is an academic-industry, non-profit collaborative research effort that will bring together scientists from around the world and enable them to share and evaluate candidate antibodies side-by-side in a blinded, multidisciplinary analysis. Together, they will identify ideal therapeutic combinations, the assays that best predict efficacy, and the features that provide protection.

Speaking to the extraordinary speed at which this massive effort is coming together, Stephen Wilson, PhD, and LJI Chief Operating Officer stated, “In real time, the Gates Foundation has enabled the Institute to quickly shift research priorities, mobilize the tremendous expertise and resources available at the institute and, through collaboration, have a global impact.”

The consortium’s database will be housed at LJI and run by Alessandro Sette, Dr. Biol.Sci., and Bjoern Peters, Ph.D., who are both professors in LJI’s Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research and who have almost two decades of experience running the Immune Epitope Database and Analysis Resource (IEDB). The IEDB gives biomedical researchers worldwide free access to a rapidly growing catalogue of epitopes–the specific, molecular structures that the immune system uses to tell friend from foe–involved in autoimmunity, infectious and allergic diseases, as well as organ and tissue transplantation.

Vaccine immunologist Shane Crotty, Ph.D., also a professor in the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccine Research, will coordinate complementary vaccine efforts with ongoing work on therapeutic antibodies. Crotty’s work has been instrumental in spurring a shift from the trial-and-error approach that has dominated the field of vaccine development in the past and has paved the way for the rational design of immune-based treatments.

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Please visit CoVIC.lji.org for more information after the embargo lifts.

About La Jolla Institute for Immunology

La Jolla Institute for Immunology is dedicated to understanding the intricacies and power of the immune system so that we may apply that knowledge to promote human health and prevent a wide range of diseases. Since its founding in 1988 as an independent, nonprofit research organization, the Institute has made numerous advances leading towards its goal: life without disease®.

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