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 that are so weak 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.
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.
An antibody treatment to instantly provide protection against the coronavirus could be ready next year, according to the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (stock image)
AstraZeneca, which has already partnered with Oxford University to develop a separate Covid-19 vaccine , says it 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.
WHAT ARE ANTIBODIES?
Antibodies are substances produced by the immune system which store memories of how to fight off a specific virus.
They can only be created if the body is exposed to the virus by getting infected for real, or through a vaccine or other type of specialist immune therapy.
Generally speaking, antibodies produce immunity to a virus because they are redeployed if it enters the body for a second time, defeating the bug faster than it can take hold and cause an illness.
An antibody test, which involves analysis of someone’s blood sample, has two purposes: to reveal whether an individual has been infected in the past and may therefore be protected against the virus, and to count those people.
Knowing you are immune to a virus – although whether people actually develop immunity to Covid-19 is still unknown – can affect how you act in the future.
Someone may need to protect themselves less if they know they have been infected, for example, or medical staff may be able to return to work in the knowledge they are not at risk.
‘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 IV infusion and 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.’
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.
Covid-19 vaccine could be ready within a year if trials are successful, leading UK research scientist reveals
A vaccine for Covid-19 could be ready within a year if trials go well, a leading UK research scientist has sad.
Professor Robin Shattock, who leads a team working to produce a vaccine at Imperial College London, said that enough of the vaccine would be available for every person in the UK if trials go ‘really well’.
There is no certainty that the vaccine being developed with work though as its effectiveness depends on the level of immunity needed to prevent infection, which makes chances of success difficult to predict.
Professor Robin Shattock, who leads a team working to produce a vaccine at Imperial College London, said that enough of the vaccine would be available for every person in the UK if trials go ‘really well’
Speaking on Sky News’ Sophie Ridge On Sunday, Professor Shattock said: ‘So we anticipate if everything goes really well that we’ll get an answer as to whether it works by early next year.
‘And we have put in place the infrastructure to make that vaccine for the whole of the UK.
‘So, assuming that the funding is there to purchase that vaccine, we could have that vaccine rolled out across the UK in the first half of next year.’
15 volunteers have already been given the trial vaccines and testing is expected to ramp up to include as many as 200-300 new participants in the coming weeks.
15 volunteers have already been given the trial vaccines and testing is expected to ramp up to include as many as 200-300 new participants in the coming weeks (file image)
Professor Shattock told the programme: ‘If you only need a very small amount of immunity, I suspect most of the vaccines that are being developed will actually work, but if you need a very strong immune response or particular quality of immune response, we’ll see that actually it will be shaking out to some of these candidates.
‘We hope we will be the candidate, one of the candidates, that is successful, but there’s no certainty with any individual approach.’
Another vaccine is also being developed at Oxford University and the combined efforts of both teams has left Professor Shattock feeling optimistic that a vaccine could be ready soon – especially as the number of cases are falling.
He said that the although there is no certainty that either the vaccine at Imperial or Oxford could not work, the likelihood of both failing he says is ‘very low’.
Professor Shattock said that any vaccine will have to be introduced cautiously because normal full trials will not have taken place (file image)
However, given the importance of a vaccine and the pressure to develop one quickly, Professor Shattock said that any vaccine will have to be introduced cautiously because normal full trials will not have taken place.
He said: ‘I think the wire pressure is actually there’s such a push to develop a vaccine that normally, we would study a vaccine for two years before we made it widely available to the general public,’ he told the programme.
‘And of course, we won’t have two years of safety for this vaccine or any of the vaccines that are being developed.
‘And so they still will need to be introduced very cautiously, with long-term follow up, as that pressure to get a vaccine in and to get economies up and running is really very strong.’