on March 12, 2020
Following the publication of a €10 million call in January, the European Commission has secured an additional €37.5 million for urgently needed research on COVID-19 vaccine development, treatment and diagnostics. This action is part of the coordinated EU response to the public health threat of COVID-19. The scale up of the emergency call allowed to select 17 projects involving 136 research teams from across the EU and beyond, including a consortium formed by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB, affiliated to USI), which ranked second out of 91 proposals.
The EU call for expressions of interest to support research on COVID-19 draws on the special emergency research fund of the Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation to support scientific research in this area. The Commission gave researchers (academic and non-academic) two weeks to submit project proposals, which were then evaluated within a few days. “The exceptional situation is reflected also in the very short time between the publication of the call and the evaluation period, a process which usually can take up to a full year,” explains Dr. Luca Varani, Group Leader at the IRB and promoter of the research consortium together with Davide Robbiani, who will start working on the project at Rockefeller University in New York and then join the IRB, where he will become director from August 1 (info).
The ATAC (Antibody therapy against coronavirus (COVID-2019)) consortium, of which the IRB is a leading partner and beneficiary of the most important funding, will develop new immunotherapies against COVID-19. “To explain what this is all about, we could think of when, as children, we get chickenpox,” explains Varani. “We only get chickenpox once, because after the first infection our immune system produces molecules, called antibodies, which are able to defeat it as soon as it recurs. In the same way, patients cured of COVID-19 have antibodies in their blood that defeated it. The consortium wants to build upon these antibodies in three different and independent ways in order to maximize the chances of success and exploit the advantages of each approach. First, we will take the blood of patients recovered from COVID-19 and extract all the antibodies that will then be administered as a drug to the affected person. This ‘gamma-globulin immunotherapy’, which will be pursued by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (partner of the consortium and famous for awarding Nobel prizes) has the advantage of being quick and relatively simple but requires repeated blood donations. A second approach, carried out in the consortium by the University of Braunschweig (Germany), takes fragments of the antibodies from COVID-19 patients and mixes them, using molecular biology techniques, trying to obtain an ‘artificial’ antibody that can block (neutralize) SARS-COV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and subsequently be used as a drug. The third approach, a specialty of IRB that was used successfully in diseases such as Ebola, consists of searching the blood of cured patients for the best antibodies, which have already been shown to defeat COVID-19, and then producing them (in jargon, recombinant monoclonal antibodies) and administering them as a drug in the future. The advantage is that once a ‘good’ antibody is identified, it can be “mass produced” continuously”.
In the research consortium, in addition to the IRB that will characterize, select and improve (with molecular engineering) the antibodies generated with the three approaches, we also find the group of researchers directed by Dr. Baldanti at the San Matteo Hospital in Pavia that will verify the effectiveness of the antibodies. Finally, the European Community Research Centre (EU-JRC, partner of the consortium) will work closely with the EMA (European Medicines Agency) to ensure that production follows the necessary rules for the safety of the drug from the beginning, thus ensuring that it can reach human use as quickly as possible.
The research conducted by the consortium will also be important for the development of new vaccines against COVID-19, although their production is not the objective of this project but of others that have received European funding. “A vaccine,” says Varani, “pushes our immune system to generate antibodies, just like chickenpox, without making us sick. To understand how studying antibodies helps to build vaccines, we can think about developing an imaginary antibody to stop a car. If this antibody were to bind to the roof, it would have no effect, while if it blocked a wheel it would succeed. Studying how the best antibodies interact with SARS-COV-2 allows us to find out which are the ‘virus wheels’, which can then be the targets for new vaccines“.