Two new research projects that aim to advance COVID-19 testing and treatment have launched thanks to a new $350,000 gift from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The first of these new projects at Fred Hutch, led by Dr. Keith Jerome, seeks to massively increase capacity and speed of testing for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The second, led by Dr. Andrew McGuire, aims to develop targeted immune proteins called neutralizing antibodies that can stop the virus in its tracks and could potentially be used as a first-line treatment for people with infection.
“Philanthropic funding allows us to get to work quickly. We don’t have to wait for people to review grant applications, have meetings to discuss them, etc.,” McGuire said. “This is incredibly important when we are dealing with public health emergencies such as the current COVID pandemic.”
Jerome’s new study aims to validate and deliver tests that hospitals, doctor’s offices and pharmacies could use within minutes to diagnose infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
So-called “point-of-care” tests, which don’t require that patient samples be sent away to specialized laboratories, could play a big role in expanding testing for the virus. Such tests would not only make diagnostic testing more widely available, they’d prevent infected people from spreading the virus during the wait for results, which can take days.
In Washington, testing has recently expanded to more than a dozen labs across the state, but much more capacity is needed.
“Getting our economy back on its feet, and giving people back the ability to live the lives they choose, will require an enormous expansion of testing on a scale that’s been completely unprecedented. Much of this will happen in large centralized labs, but often there will be a need for a quick result, or results will be needed in places without access to complex testing,” explained Jerome, who also heads the University of Washington virology lab that has tested tens of thousands of people from Washington and beyond for the virus since early March.
Using known positive samples from Washington state patients, Jerome’s Fred Hutch lab team is using the new funding to evaluate existing point-of-care tests created by researchers in academia and industry. The team is learning how to interpret these new tests’ results correctly and learning how well they perform compared to the gold-standard tests developed by UW Virology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and others. Jerome’s team is also developing new approaches that might turn into new point-of-care tests in the future, he said.
Jerome added that his team has also used the Murdock funding “for a quick win” on a related matter in coronavirus testing: to demonstrate that it is possible to carry out a simpler version of the gold-standard testing method. The gold-standard method used by UW Virology and other specialized labs relies on a technique called PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, to multiply the tiny amounts of viral genetic material (called RNA) to detectable amounts. Jerome’s team demonstrated it’s possible to do this gold-standard PCR-based testing without the complicated and expensive step to first extract that viral RNA.
“Testing done this way isn’t quite as sensitive as the gold-standard test we do regularly, but it’s allowing testing to be established in places that have limited or no access to the RNA extraction instruments,” Jerome said. “We have already worked with groups in Uganda and Peru who are bringing the no-extraction test to their local hospitals.”
The second study funded with the new gift, led by McGuire, builds off work that he began several years ago with UW collaborator Dr. David Veesler to identify antibodies that neutralize the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS.
Antibodies are produced by the immune system to latch on to specific disease-causing germs. Antibodies can inhibit the germs directly or mark them for destruction by killer immune cells. They are a critical component of the body’s disease-fighting powers, and because they’re highly specific to their targets, they’re frequently developed for medical applications such as drugs or diagnostics.
Building off their work to produce and identify other coronavirus antibodies, McGuire’s team is now searching for antibodies that can also neutralize the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Specifically, they’re on the hunt for antibodies that latch onto a portion of coronaviruses’ spike proteins that allow this type of virus to dump its insides into human cells, where the virus hijacks the cells' reproductive machinery. By sticking to these spikes, the antibodies would stop the virus’ invasion and thus its multiplication in the body.
If his team can identify an antibody that neutralizes all three types of deadly coronavirus, McGuire hopes it could be developed into a drug to treat people with dangerous coronavirus diseases, including COVID-19.
“We hope to generate pan-coronavirus neutralizing antibodies that could be given passively as a first line of defense against emerging coronavirus infections like the current one, and others like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-1,” McGuire said, referencing the names of the viruses that cause MERS and SARS. “They will also help us understand critical sites of vulnerability on these viruses that will inform vaccine design.”
The new project will take advantage of the Hutch’s specialized Antibody Technology core resource, a shared research facility with advanced technologies and experts who collaborate with scientists at the Hutch and beyond on research studies built on these important molecules. Incidentally, the antibody core underwent a significant expansion several years ago thanks to a previous gift from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
With its latest gifts supporting Jerome and McGuire, the Vancouver, Washington-based foundation since 1992 has given nearly $4.5 million to the Hutch.
Susan Keown is an associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sejkeown.