Wei Li. Photo courtesy of UPMC.

This story was updated on September 15 following the press conference with the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC.

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine scientists have identified an antibody that has been shown to both prevent and treat SARS-CoV-2 virus in mice and hamsters.

“This antibody component, which is 10 times smaller than a full-sized antibody, has been used to construct a drug — known as Ab8,” it was reported on Monday in the journal Cell.

“We’ve discovered potent human monoclonal antibodies that block the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19,” says John Mellors, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UPMC and University of Pittsburgh.

The molecule’s tiny size gives it several advantages. First, it increases the potential for diffusion in tissues to better neutralize the virus. This also allows it to be administered by an inhaled drug instead of through an IV drip. And it doesn’t bind to human cells, which means it is unlikely to have negative side effects.

“We imagine two major uses. One is a treatment for people who already have COVID-19,” says Mellors. “The idea is that the antibody will block the spread of the virus throughout the body. The other major use is to prevent infection, and some very susceptible populations include the elderly, healthcare workers, individuals who don’t have normal immunity. The idea would be to give a dose of antibody that lasts from weeks to months and protects them from infection.”

Senior author Dimiter Dimitrov was one of the first to discover neutralizing antibodies for the SARS coronavirus in 2003. Wei Li, assistant director of Pitt’s Center for Therapeutic Antibodies, and co-lead author of the research, started sifting through vast libraries of antibody components made using human blood samples in February. He found multiple antibody possibilities, including Ab8.

Ab8 was developed in conjunction with scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, as well as the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan.

Even at its lowest dose, it decreased tenfold the amount of infectious virus in mice, UNC scientists found.

There’s a long way to go, ultimately towards trials in humans.

“The proof is in human studies,” explains Mellors. “But we can show its potency, not only in the laboratory dish but also in two different animal models — same result, very potent blockade of the virus. And we know that we can achieve certain concentrations with dosing in humans. And although there’s no guarantee, all signs are pointing towards a positive effect.”

Abound Bio, a UPMC backed company, has been formed to license Ab8 for worldwide development.

“Abound Bio is located in the Hill District and has very energetic and brilliant employees who are working towards the goal of making these innovative antibodies available for treatment of diseases and for commercial potential,” says Mellors.

“The timeline, to be brief, is the start of 2021 to manufacture, do safety assessments in other animals, to get FDA approval, and to register and enroll clinical trials.”

Mellors expects the price of these antibodies to continue on a downward trajectory.

“On a positive note, the cost of manufacturing antibodies is falling rapidly as the ability to produce increases, and there are very, very few silver linings to COVID,” says Mellors. “But one of them will be the world will be better prepared to produce biologics like vaccines and antibodies to treat this pandemic and, heaven forbid, the next one.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...