AstraZeneca Ramps Up Antibody Research Focused on Treating COVID-19


AstraZeneca made an announcement describing its internal and partnering efforts to battle COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

One of the ways is an internal project on antibodies. The company has assigned 50 virologists, protein engineers and clinical and bioprocess experts to work on using its antibody discovery technology to quickly identify possible therapeutic antibodies. It was this same technology, which was developed under a deal with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of the Pandemic Preparedness Platform program, that allowed it to identify antibodies for influenza A in less than 60 days.

It is also working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Vanderbilt University Medical Center to evaluate possible drug candidates for the disease. The two institutions provided the company with genetic sequences for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 for further research. In addition, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the University of Maryland School of Medicine will conduct preclinical safety and efficacy tests of promising antibodies AstraZeneca already discovered. USAMRIID and U of M will utilize their biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratories.

“Through our scientific expertise in infectious disease and antibody discovery and development, we have rapidly mobilized our research efforts to help respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic,” said Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of AstraZeneca’s BioPharmaceuticals R&D.

The antibody approach is different than vaccine development. Vaccines are preventative, which require immunization and a healthy immune system. For the most part, the idea is to introduce the body’s immune system to a protein on the shell of the virus, which causes the immune system to recognize and be able to mount an offense when it encounters the actual virus.

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Monoclonal antibodies that are made in the laboratory act like natural antibodies. AstraZeneca and other companies working on antibody-based treatments against COVID-19 are hoping that they can identify appropriate antibodies against the virus, engineer them as necessary, and then manufacture them so they can be used as a form of treatment, which has the potential to have an immediate effect on the patient.

AstraZeneca’s focus on antibodies has three prongs. The first is to identify antibodies against the virus from patients who have recovered from COVID-19. The second is in immunized humanized mice. And the third is in the laboratory using various techniques, such as phage display. Phages are a type of virus that infect bacteria. Phage display has been used in a variety of medical techniques, including transfusion medicine, neurological disorders, mapping vascular addresses and peptide research.

AstraZeneca has a proprietary immune replica technology platform that captures and screens antibodies from millions of primary B-cells. It also leverages hybridoma technology, a way of manufacturing large numbers of monoclonal antibodies via hybrid cell cultures that results from the fusion of B-cells and immortal myeloma cells.

Once the monoclonal antibodies are identified, they are screened for their ability to bind to the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The company says it is hoping to enter the clinic in the next three to five months.

“At AstraZeneca, we have a long history of, and deep expertise in discovering and developing antibody-based treatments for a range of diseases,” said Mark Esser, vice president, Microbial Sciences, BioPharmaceuticals R&D at AstraZeneca.  “The proprietary technology we are using to identify novel coronavirus-neutralizing antibodies has already been pressure-tested against influenza A in response to the DARPA P3 program. Harnessing these capabilities, our scientists are working tirelessly and collaboratively, hoping we can contribute to putting an end to this crisis as fast as we can.”


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