The antibodies target portions of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that resist mutation, potentially leading to better treatments and vaccines
One challenge in the battle against COVID-19 is the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, especially the Delta variant, which may be more resistant to neutralizing antibodies compared with the original coronavirus. But now, scientists led by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) in Seattle say they have identified antibodies that could be broadly protective against multiple sarbecoviruses, the subgenus that contains SARS-CoV-2 as well as SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the 2002-2004 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.
In “SARS-CoV-2 RBD Antibodies That Maximize Breadth and Resistance to Escape,” the researchers described how they compared 12 antibodies obtained from patients infected with either SARS-CoV-2 or SARS-CoV-1. They pointed to one antibody in particular—S2H97—that could lead to development of new vaccines and therapies against current and future variants. It might even protect against sarbecoviruses that have not yet been identified, they wrote.
Unsaid in the news release about these research findings is the fact that these particular antibodies could eventually become useful biomarkers for clinical laboratory tests designed to help physicians determine which patients have these antibodies—and the protection from infection they represent—and which do not.
So far, however, S2H97 has only been tested in hamsters. But results are promising.
“This antibody, which binds to a previously unknown site on the coronavirus spike protein, appears to neutralize all known sarbecoviruses—the genus of coronaviruses that cause respiratory infections in mammals,” said Jay Nix, PhD, an affiliate in Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area and Beamline Director of the Molecular Biology Consortium at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS), in a Berkeley Lab news release. “And, due to the unique binding site on mutation-resistant part of the virus, it may well be more difficult for a new strain to escape,” he added.
The research team led by biochemist Tyler Starr, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Fred Hutch, also included researchers from Vir Biotechnology (NASDAQ:VIR), the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.
Scientists have long known that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses the spike protein to attach to human cells. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the variants have mutations in their spike proteins that make some of them more transmissible.
The Delta variant, the CDC notes, was the predominant variant in the US as of August 28, 2021. It “has been shown to have increased transmissibility, potential reduction in neutralization by some monoclonal antibody treatments, and reduction in neutralization by post-vaccination sera,” the agency states.
The key to S2H97, the researchers wrote, is that it targets a portion of the spike protein that is common among sarbecoviruses, and that is likely to be resistant to mutations.
The researchers used a variety of techniques to analyze how the 12 antibodies bind to the virus. They “compiled a list of thousands of mutations in the binding domains of multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Nature reported. “They also catalogued mutations in the binding domain on dozens of SARS-CoV-2-like coronaviruses that belong to a group called the sarbecoviruses. Finally, they assessed how all these mutations affect the 12 antibodies’ ability to stick to the binding domain.”
Earlier Antibody Treatment Receives an EUA from the FDA
Another antibody studied by the researchers, S309, has already led to a monoclonal antibody therapy authorized for use in the US. On May 26, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for sotrovimab, a therapy developed by GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and Vir Biotechnology, according to SciTechDaily.
In issuing the EUA for sotrovimab, the FDA cited “an interim analysis from a phase 1/2/3 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial in 583 non-hospitalized adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 symptoms and a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result. Of these patients, 291 received sotrovimab and 292 received a placebo within five days of onset of COVID-19 symptoms.”
Among these patients, 21 in the placebo group were hospitalized or died compared with three who received the therapy, an 85% reduction.
“While preventive measures, including vaccines, can reduce the total number of cases, sotrovimab is an important treatment option for those who become ill with COVID-19 and are at high risk—allowing them to avoid hospitalization or worse,” stated Adrienne E. Shapiro, MD, PhD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in a GSK news release. Shapiro was an investigator in the clinical trial.
The EUA allows use of sotrovimab in patients who have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, have mild-to-moderate symptoms, and “who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19, including hospitalization or death. This includes, for example, individuals who are 65 years of age and older or individuals who have certain medical conditions.” It is not authorized for patients who are hospitalized or for those who require oxygen therapy.
The therapy was originally known as VIR-7831. The companies say they have developed a similar treatment, VIR-7832, with modifications designed to enhance T cell function against the disease.
In “The Dual Function Monoclonal Antibodies VIR-7831 and VIR-7832 Demonstrate Potent In Vitro and In Vivo Activity Against SARS-CoV-2,” published on bioRxiv, researchers from Vir Biotechnology wrote that the S309 antibody was isolated from a survivor of the earlier outbreak of SARS-CoV-1.
The antibody, they wrote, targets a region of the SARS-CoV-1 spike protein that is “highly conserved” among sarbecoviruses. Clinical laboratory testing, they wrote, also indicated that the therapy was likely to be effective against known SARS-CoV-2 variants.
“Our distinctive scientific approach has led to a single monoclonal antibody that, based on an interim analysis, resulted in an 85% reduction in all-cause hospitalizations or death, and has demonstrated, in vitro, that it retains activity against all known variants of concern, including the emerging variant from India,” stated Vir Biotechnology CEO George Scangos, PhD, in the GSK news release. “I believe that sotrovimab is a critical new treatment option in the fight against the current pandemic and potentially for future coronavirus outbreaks, as well.”
Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers working with rapid molecular tests and antibody tests for COVID-19 will want to monitor the development of monoclonal antibody treatments, as well as further research studies that focus on these specific antibodies.