A British pharmaceutical giant is preparing to launch human trials of an antibody treatment that could protect old and vulnerable people from coronavirus.
Cambridge-based drugmaker AstraZeneca plans to test its three-minute infusion of antibodies – immune cells trained to fight infections – on 30 Britons next month.
If it is proven to be safe then the therapy will be fast-tracked into large-scale trials on thousands of people in the autumn and winter, when Covid-19 cases are expected to rise.
The treatment, described by Government scientists as ‘very exciting’, works by recreating the body’s natural disease-fighting substances in a lab and injecting them into vulnerable patients.
It is designed for people with immune systems so weak that conventional vaccines do not protect them. It would be suitable for those on chemotherapy and immunosuppressant drugs, or elderly patients who naturally struggle to fight off infections.
Conventional vaccines prompt the body to produce its own antibodies in preparation for the real infection. But elderly people do not respond as well and develop less potent antibodies than young people.
AstraZeneca, which has already partnered with Oxford University to develop a separate Covid-19 vaccine, says the antibody treatment could shield people from catching Covid-19 for six months.
The therapy can also be used on people who are already infected to block the illness from progressing.
Sir Mene Pangalos, who leads pharmaceutical discovery research at AstraZeneca, told The Times: ‘There’s a population who are elderly that [may not] get a particularly good immune response to the [conventional] vaccine.
‘In those instances, you might want to prophylactically treat those patients with an antibody to give them additional protection.
‘We’re going to do this as fast as we can. Obviously we’ve got to show that you’re safe but antibodies are well known entities — it should be safe.’
Sir Mene warned the treatment will likely cost double the amount of a standard vaccine and should be reserved for the sickest of patients.
The treatment uses so-called monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), which have been engineered in a laboratory and mimic antibodies naturally produced by recovered Covid patients.
Monoclonal antibodies are already being used to treat tetanus, Ebola and diphtheria.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University in the US evaluated more than 1,500 mAbs to find the two most effective at stifling Covid-19’s spread.
The two antibodies are given in combination via an injection. They work by binding to the coronavirus’s spike proteins, which is uses to latch onto human cells, and preventing it from entering the body.
A scientific adviser to the UK Government today described the new treatment as ‘very exciting’ and said it could prevent the sickest Covid patients developing severe complications.
Professor Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London, told The Telegraph: ‘I think it’s potentially a very exciting form of therapy and the field has advanced quite remarkably over recent years in terms of the ability to produce antibodies in factories or in labs in bulk, that would be necessary for such a treatment to work. We do have to wait for some really good studies to demonstrate this.’
A similar therapy is being trialled on dozens of Covid-19 patients in the US by New York-based firm Regeneron.
The drugmaker has developed its own antibody cocktail using an antibody made in a lab and a second isolated from humans who recovered from the disease.
Like AstraZeneca’s treatment, it is designed so that its two antibodies bind to the coronavirus’ spike protein, limiting the ability of viruses to escape.
Antibodies are proteins which are produced by the immune system in response to the presence of a foreign substance, like the coronavirus. This can take a number of days.
Antibodies recognize and latch onto these substances, called antigens, in order to remove them from the body.
The immune system remembers the antigen so that if a person is exposed to it again, it can produce antibodies quicker.
It is not clear how long antibodies from the first infection last in the system providing some form of immunity.
An injection of cloned antibodies would be made by taking genetic coding for Covid-19 antibodies and engineering clones in a lab in order to make mass quantities.