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Pittsburgh scientists say next year they will be able to begin testing breakthrough drugs that could stop the pandemic by treating and even preventing the virus that causes covid-19 in humans. I announced it immediately.
The basis of the drug is a small but powerful antibody that can block the virus from infecting cells. This drug, called Ab8, is effective in the prevention and treatment of covid-19 in mice and hamsters. Human clinical trials can begin in early 2021.
At a press conference on Tuesday, UPMC officials said the drug was particularly useful for vulnerable patients who did not respond to the vaccine, such as the elderly and those with impaired immune systems.
“Vaccines induce large doses of different antibodies with different potencies,” said Dr. John Melers, head of infection at UPMC and Pitt. “Here, this antibody provides a uniform and powerful biomolecule whose sole function is to block the virus.”
Antibody development began in February at Pitt’s antibody treatment center, Mellors said. Ab8 is based on the work of Dimiter Dimitrov, the director of the center. His work dates back to 2003. Viral respiratory illness was first reported in Asia when he discovered an antibody that neutralizes SARS.
Since then, Dimitrov’s team has discovered antibodies that fight many other infections, including MERS, dengue, Hendra, and Nipah virus. Like covid-19, both SARS and MERS are caused by various coronaviruses.
However, the researchers said the molecules that make up Ab8 are unique. This is especially small, about one-tenth that of full antibodies. This means that full-size antibodies can penetrate areas of the body that cannot penetrate. Scientists explained that the antibody works by preventing spikes of the covid-19 virus from binding to human proteins.
Mellors said the antibody is very powerful. It seems to last long. He said it was also “fully human”. As a result, it does not bind to human proteins and is safe to use as there are no foreign substances rejected by the human immune system.
“Small size means that you can treat or prevent infections in more people with a certain amount of protein because you need less,” says Mellors. “This is very powerful and should be able to have a greater impact. It may also be possible to deliver antibodies by means other than intravenous.”
He said their delivery methods included injection or inhalation under the skin.
The drug is intended for both treatment and prevention of covid-19, but researchers said it was not intended to replace the vaccine under development at UPMC or elsewhere. Vaccination is more cost-effective and can be distributed throughout the population, he said. Both vaccination and drugs like Ab8 are important to reduce the effects of covid-19, especially among vulnerable populations whose immune system needs non-vaccine help.
“The population of patients who need the vaccine most is unlikely to respond,” said Dr. Stephen Shapiro, chief medical scientist at UPMC. “Antibodies provide it.”
UPMC officials said their vaccine, PittCoVacc, is also approaching clinical trials. Scientists around the world are competing to produce safe and effective vaccines.
Mellors said it was too early to estimate the expected cost of Ab8, but said that the cost of producing antibodies is declining rapidly as scientists develop better capabilities to produce antibodies. Added. He hopes that the development of Ab8 and other antibodies will bring lasting benefits to scientists and be “armed and ready” for all viruses that could cause a pandemic in the future.
“We offer very little silver lining,” says Mellors. “But one of them looks like this: The world will be ready to produce vaccines and antibodies to treat this pandemic.
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