UChicago, Argonne scientists’ research is starting point for treatments, vaccines, testing

Virtually all of the ways to fight COVID-19 hinge on finding antibodies. These little molecules can latch onto viruses and disable them, but they have to be custom-made for a particular virus.

University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory scientists are racing to find and study these antibodies, which are made by humans who have recovered from the virus. Finding these antibodies, and screening for the most effective ones, could be fundamental in creating treatments, vaccines and testing regimens.

Scientists said they were stunned by the speed and strength of the scientific world’s response. “We are working with groups in the U.S., in the U.K., in Italy, in China. I can tell you that people all over the world are trying to help,” said Argonne biologist Andrzej Joachimiak.

UChicago immunologist Patrick Wilson agreed: “It’s really amazing how the research community has come together on this. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Even as the novel coronavirus spread across Asia and Europe early this year, Wilson was in touch with collaborators who were collecting blood from patients with COVID-19. At the same time, Joachimiak had quickly mobilized to determine the physical shape and structure of the proteins that make up the coronavirus using Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, a stadium-sized X-ray microscope that allows scientists to see things down to the size of atoms. Both of these gave Wilson’s lab the opportunity to start decoding right away.

Wilson specializes in studying B cells—the white blood cells that contain the master recipe for making antibodies. Working with collaborators across the country, he quickly began to isolate B cells from the patients’ blood that were responding to coronavirus. Once scientists have those B cells, they can copy the DNA and use it to set up a “factory” to produce the antibodies.

The next step is to find out which of these antibodies are most effective against the virus. There are dozens of different places on the virus that antibodies could attack, and in the process of fighting off the disease, each person makes many different types of antibodies—some more useful than others.

Wilson’s lab will do preliminary experiments with pieces of the virus to see how strongly the different antibody candidates latch on. Likewise, Joachimiak’s lab at the Advanced Photon Source will use its X-rays to take “action shots” of the test antibodies locked onto the virus proteins.

With both Joachimiak’s and Wilson’s results, virology labs can do more testing in petri dishes to see which antibodies are most effective against the virus.

Once effective antibodies are in hand, many possibilities will be unlocked. “You could mass-manufacture the most protective antibodies to directly treat patients,” Wilson said. “You’ll also know which areas on the virus are most vulnerable to antibodies, so you can use that to direct searches for vaccines.”

Read more at UChicago News.

Image: Scientists using X-rays at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source can unlock the structures of coronavirus proteins, such as the one above, in order to find treatments and guide vaccine development. Courtesy of the Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases