Boehringer Ingelheim-backed COVID-19 researchers identify new antibodies to fight the virus

A patient with a surgical mask looks out a window.
Comparing immune cells from COVID-19 patients to those from healthy people led German researchers to identify antibody drug candidates for fighting the virus. (Getty/Nikola Stojadinovic)

In April, Boehringer Ingelheim announced a multifaceted plan to help fight COVID-19, which included collaborating with academic researchers to find potential treatments. Now one of those research programs has uncovered 28 antibodies that the company plans to move into further testing.

A team of researchers led by Cologne University Hospital and the German Center for Infection Research studied the antibody response to COVID-19 in 12 people who recovered from the virus, as well as immune cells from 48 healthy people collected before the pandemic. By examining more than 4,000 B cells, they pinpointed antibodies with the strongest neutralizing effect on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they reported (PDF) in the journal Cell.

The team focused on decoding the “humoral immune response” that the virus causes, which is the process by which B cells are activated to fight pathogens. They isolated 255 antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 response, reconstructed them in the lab, and then tested their ability to neutralize the coronavirus.

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The 28 finalists they picked were not only able to potently neutralize the virus, they also showed low levels of mutations over time. “This means that only minor changes were necessary to effectively recognize and neutralize the virus," explained co-author Matthias Zehner of the University of Cologne, in a statement.

Comparing B cells from COVID-19 survivors to those of the 48 healthy individuals helped the team identify the top antibody candidates. In the blood samples taken pre-pandemic, they discovered “precursors of potent SARS-CoV-2-neutralizing antibodies in every single individual,” they wrote in the study, suggesting that the immune systems of healthy people may already be primed to ramp up the production of COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies in response to treatment with the drug candidates they identified.

RELATED: Lilly starts second COVID-19 antibody test with partner Junshi Biosciences, eyes combo trials

The massive effort underway to develop vaccines and antibodies against COVID-19 is largely focused on generating antibodies targeting the spike protein that facilitates the infection of healthy cells. Eli Lilly has two such antibodies in clinical trials. Regeneron is rapidly advancing studies of its antibody cocktail. Amgen and AstraZeneca are also in a race to develop antibody treatments.

BI hasn’t provided details about which COVID research it plans to prioritize. The company has embarked on “a broad program pursuing many approaches in parallel,” said Cyrille Kuhn, executive director of research, in the April announcement.

The findings from the Cologne University-led team prompted the researchers to suggest that the COVID neutralizing antibodies they identified may be useful in both fighting active infections and preventing them in people who have come in contact with patients fighting the disease. They predicted clinical trials of the top antibody candidates could begin by the end of the year.

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