Qiagen joins with T-cell biotech TScan to develop immune system test for COVID-19

Qiagen has begun working with a biotech startup focused on cell therapies to develop a COVID-19 diagnostic test capable of comprehensively profiling a person’s immune response to the disease.

The Boston area-based TScan Therapeutics launched in July 2019 with the goal of identifying new targets for T-cell therapies in both blood cancers and solid tumors. It started off with $48 million and later inked a collaboration with its Big Pharma backer Novartis for research into kidney cancer.

Now, the company is turning its genome-based, high-throughput discovery platform for parsing T-cell receptors toward the coronavirus pandemic and how those immune cells react, and has inked a licensing agreement with Qiagen.

The Dutch test maker will have the option to pick up the rights to discovered T-cell targets for the later development of in vitro laboratory diagnostics, aimed at detecting and evaluating a person’s prior exposure to the coronavirus. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

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“Current tests for prior exposure to coronavirus rely on the detection of antibodies, which tend to diminish within a couple of months of being infected with the virus,” said Gavin MacBeath, TScan’s chief scientific officer. “We believe that detecting antiviral T cells based on our discoveries will provide a more reliable way to determine exposure to SARS-CoV-2 over a much longer period following infection.”

“If the presence of antiviral T cells can be linked to protection from future infection, a test like this may ultimately provide valuable information on the course of the pandemic and how to return safely to normal life,” MacBeath said.

Previously identified T cells in patients recovering from COVID-19 have shown that they do not cross-react to other seasonal coronaviruses, such as the one that causes the common cold, the companies said.

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Meanwhile in October, TScan announced an agreement with Poseida Therapeutics to develop allogeneic T-cell receptor therapies as a potential COVID-19 treatment, using immune cells engineered to be virus-specific.