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A Possible COVID Shield 16 Years In The Making

illustration of COVID virus against backdrop of infected lungs

Sixteen years ago University of Massachusetts scientists put research into a cure for SARS on ice after the virus vanished. They recently returned to that work and built upon it to develop a possible treatment for the latest coronavirus that prevents it from attaching itself to our respiratory systems.

One Thing Leads to Another

SARS, which is technically known as SARS-CoV, was the first instance of a novel coronavirus causing severe respiratory disease. And just when the MassBiologic lab at UMass was ready to enter clinical trials with a possible treatment, the virus went away.

Fast-forward to today when SARS-CoV-2 is rampaging around the globe.

Looking to help, MassBiologic thawed out the antibody samples they had frozen 16 years ago to revive the work they had been doing then. Unfortunately, when they tried them against today’s novel coronavirus, they weren’t effective—even though there is a 90% match between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. But the work started them down a path that would bear fruit.

They moved on to looking at a type of antibody known as secretory IgAs (sIgA), which help mucus-coated surfaces in our bodies repel viral attackers by making it hard for them to attach.

“In nature, sIgA antibodies coat mucosal surfaces like the respiratory, GI, and GU tracts, where they are stabilized by the mucous layer on these surfaces,” said Mark Klempner, MD, executive vice chancellor for MassBiologics and professor of medicine. “There, they perform the important function of preventing binding of a pathogen to host cells, thus preventing infection.”

Lung Shields

Sure enough, the researchers found that an sIgA they dubbed MAb362 proved successful. The antibody works by binding to receptors in the mucosal lining of the lungs before the coronavirus has a chance to do the same. It’s effectively a shield that blocks the virus from attaching itself to the respiratory system, and further development could help it become a critical part of a vaccine.

“So our search—which started during a coffee break conversation—has resulted in a unique IgA antibody that could potentially be applied through mucosal administration, in combination with other systemically administered therapeutics for direct mucosal protection,” said Klempner.

The research has been published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Communications.