IRB ready for clinical testing of second generation antibody against COVID-19

Following the development of a second-generation antibody against the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its variants, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB, affiliated to USI) is now moving into the clinical trial phase, supported by the European Commission.

Described in a paper published in March in the prestigious journal Nature, the antibody meets the needs of a modern SARS-CoV-2 drug and is active in the laboratory against all known variants of the virus; it does not allow the virus to generate new variants in response to drug treatment; and it has a strong ability to resist future viral mutations because of the way it is designed. The antibody developed at the IRB differs from all others currently available because it is ‘dual’ (in jargon, bispecific). It is, in effect, two antibodies combined into a single molecule.

Luca Varani, Group leader at IRB, comments: “It is very exciting to see an antibody developed by our research groups here in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland moving towards the clinical phase, even more so as we have managed to do so without the financial resources typically available at large pharmaceutical companies. The road to helping patients is still long and winding, but we have managed to get the ball rolling. So far, the molecule has brilliantly passed all the efficacy tests, proving to be extremely potent against the SARS-CoV-2 virus; we hope to be able to continue smoothly”.

Antibody treatments work alongside vaccination and are particularly effective when the latter fails. A vaccine injects the body with a molecule (antigen) that stimulates our immune system to produce antibodies against the virus; the process takes a few weeks. In an antibody treatment, on the other hand, antibodies are directly injected in the patient and can therfore act immediately against the virus. These antibodies can be administered either at the first symptoms of Covid-19 (therapy) or before falling ill (prophylaxis), in which case they remain in the body and are able to protect against the infection for a few months.

The objective is to start the clinical trial in Ticino. “This project shows how discoveries made in the laboratories in Bellinzona have the potential to be rapidly transformed into drugs. We are now working with clinical researchers at the IOSI-EOC (Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland) to ensure that clinical trials can also be carried out in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, creating new synergies between organisations and institutions in the region”, comments Davide Robbiani, Director of the IRB.

The second-generation antibody was developed entirely with European public funds granted to the IRB as part of the ATAC research consortium, which also includes the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra (Italy), the San Matteo Hospital in Pavia, the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and the University of Braunschweig. The costs of the initial, so-called phase I clinical studies are also covered by special EU grant of €2,5 million.

The European Commission’s decision to invest special funds for Covid-19 in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland follows the news that the IRB has recently been recognised for European funding through the ISIDORe (Integrated Services for Infectious Diseases Outbreak Research) programme, which supports international scientific research into infectious diseases with pandemic potential.