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COVID-19: 'Like finding the right book in massive library,' says UBC researcher testing antibodies for a treatment

Dr. Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the UBC Faculty of Medicine, and his team are testing antibodies for 18 hours a day, trying to find the right ones to use in a treatment to help COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the UBC Faculty of Medicine, and his team are testing antibodies for 18 hours a day, trying to find the right ones to use in a treatment to help COVID-19 patients.

Researchers at the University of B.C. are testing antibodies in an attempt to develop an inhaler that could be used to treat COVID-19 patients.

They also hope the inhaler could also be used as a preventive measure, says one of the lead researchers, Dr. Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the UBC faculty of medicine.

Bach and his team are working around the clock, testing millions of antibodies to find ones that neutralize and block the entrance of the coronavirus into cells.

The team is using bacteria as the source for the antibodies they are testing. Each bacterium has a non-infectious virus inside and, on this virus, one antibody.

Bach compares the process to trying to find a specific novel in a massive library that contains millions of books, with each book representing one antibody.

“You have no idea where the book is that you are looking for, so you have 100 million books to open one by one,” he said.

“Oh, it’s not this one. Oh, it’s not this one. This is exactly what we do. So we take all of the bacteria and we check one by one. Where is the one we are looking for? It’s crazy.”

The team, led by Bach and Dr. Ted Steiner, also in the faculty of medicine, was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in March, and one of their projects is to develop an inhaler that will deliver antibodies to the patient to block the virus from spreading.

Antibodies are proteins produced in the body as a system of defence. When people are exposed to a bacterium or a virus, their body will react and make antibodies so that the next time they are exposed to the same pathogen they can cope with the disease.

Since April, Bach has been working 18 hours a day in the lab, and is testing, on average, 500 bacteria colonies a day.

Once they have a cocktail of antibodies that will bind the virus, Bach says they can use them in an inhaler like the one used for asthma.

The virus cannot live outside of a cell. It’s inactive. In order to multiply, the virus must go in a live cell, Bach explains. The virus multiplies, the cell explodes, and the viruses find another cell.

However, Bach says if they can deliver the right antibodies into the lung, then when the virus travels it would get caught by these antibodies. They would cover the virus so they cannot infect more cells.

“It’s like they are tied and they cannot move. So that’s how we can try and control the disease,” he said.

While the inhaler could be used in hospitals for anyone who tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, it could also be used as a preventive device.

For example, if someone travels internationally an inhaler might protect that person against the disease for a certain length of time, perhaps 12 or 24 hours.

At the end of this month, Bach will have access to a Level 3 lab at UBC, which allows testing of airborne pathogens, to test using the coronavirus itself. The team will test the antibodies that they cultured in the lab with the virus to see if they work.

To keep the team safe from the coronavirus, the lab will have negative air pressure, personal protective equipment, and will require a special permit to access the area.

Once they have positive results with the antibodies they can go to mice testing and then clinical trials in humans. If everything goes OK, Bach says an inhaler could be in human clinical trials next spring.

Asked if the inhalers could work on critically ill patients, Bach said it could but there are still so many unknowns. For example, scientists don’t know if the virus alone is responsible for deaths or if it’s the severe inflammation caused by the body’s response to the virus.

Until then, the UBC team will continue searching their antibodies library on very little sleep.

Bach says they have made progress just in the past few weeks after screening thousands upon thousands of colonies.

“Finally, you pick the right book and you know, ‘Oh yes, this is the one.’ The process is exhausting and long,” he said.

“The team has made progress and hopefully by the end of this month we can start to test the virus infections using cells that we grow in the laboratory. Then it takes five days to see if it is working or not.”

ticrawford@postmedia.com


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