Pitt develops potential COVID-19 drug for therapy, prevention

Researchers hope for clinical trials next year

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has developed a potential COVID-19 drug for both therapy and prevention based on a synthetic antibody with a unique set of advantages — including high potency, the ability to control different virus variations and a small size that allows it to be delivered easily, according to scientists in a Pitt-UPMC news conference Tuesday.

The proposed medicine — Ab8 — is based on a tiny component of a human antibody discovered by “fishing” with a COVID-19 spike protein in a “pool” of 100 billion human antibodies to see which ones connected, according to Pitt researchers, whose discovery was proven to work on mice and hamsters by researchers at three other universities.

The antibody component used in Ab8 connected with all three spiky components on the coronavirus like a glob of putty on a set of keys, which can prevent the virus from breaking into cells, helping to account for the drug’s potency and effectiveness with mutated versions of the coronavirus, according to information provided by the researchers.

Pitt hopes to begin clinical trials at the beginning of next year, according to John Mellors, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UPMC and Pitt, who helped write a recent article on Ab8 in the journal Cell with colleague Dimiter Dimitrov, director of Pitt’s Center for Antibody Therapeutics.

The expected development of vaccines won’t eliminate the usefulness of a drug like Ab8, which can provide temporary preventive protection through its elegant, sole-purpose molecule, because some people don’t develop good immunity from vaccines, some have bad reactions to them and some can’t tolerate booster doses, according to Mellors and Steven Shapiro, chief medical scientific officer for UPMC.

Ironically, older and sicker people most in need of protection from COVID-19 tend to be those least able to mount a successful immune response from vaccines, so those people may be good candidates for Ab8, if it’s eventually approved, according to Shapiro.

Moreover, vaccines don’t work on infections that have already occurred, unlike Ab8, researchers said.

Depending on the situation, other potential patients for Ab8 could include health care and frontline workers exposed to the coronavirus, according to the researchers.

“To defeat the virus, you need both vaccines and treatment,” Mellors said.

Because of its small size — the essential component of Ab8 is 1/10 the size of a full antibody — the drug penetrates into tissue fully and may be delivered as an inhalant or under the skin, rather than into the bloodstream, like more cumbersome antibody treatments, the researchers indicated.

The antibody in Ab8 appears to be safe and is stable when produced, they said.

It’s long half-life is one of the characteristics that allows it to be given as a preventive, according to Shapiro.

The antibody material is also “fully human,” and without foreign material, and thus unlikely to be rejected, the researchers said.

It should also be cost-effective to produce, they indicated.

Mellors and Dimitrov have co-founded a company, Abound Bio, that is preparing to distribute the drug.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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