A collaborative team of scientists from institutions across Philadelphia and the country just received a $37.6 million grant to continue research and preclinical development of DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies (DMAbs), which early findings show could help a person fight off or prevent infection of COVID-19.
It’s yet another look at how local researchers are playing a role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The research comes out of the lab of Wistar Institute EVP David Weiner, in collaboration with scientists from Inovio Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and Indiana University.
The award, which will be dispersed over two years, comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND).
Earlier this year, Philly-based STEM training institution Wistar was working with Pennovation-based life sciences technology company Allevi on 3D-printed models of lungs to use to study the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Now, scientists at Wistar say that the development of DMAb technology could offer a unique asset to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. DMAbs are unlike conventional therapeutic antibodies, the scientists say, as they are administered as “genetic blueprints” that tell a patient’s body to build its own, specific antibodies against pathogens, like bacteria and viruses, and as immunotherapeutics for cancer.
They also hold some advantages over traditional monoclonal antibodies when it comes to scaling up and delivery, which could help large populations, scientists say. They can be manufactured quickly, have a low cost of production, and are temperature-stable to make for easier storage and delivery.
“The technology involves the design and delivery of genetic sequences that encode monoclonal antibodies into an optimized DNA platform,” Wistar said in an announcement Tuesday. “This genetic blueprint is then administered to a person so that their own body becomes the production site of highly specific antibodies which, in the case of SARS-CoV-2, target essential parts of the virus.”
In animal studies, the DMAbs were able to prevent infection and treat it, Wistar said. The program seeks to rapidly design, enhance and scale SARS-CoV-2-specific DMAbs, and then move them into lab and animal model studies. If the studies are successful, the method could provide the foundation for first-in-human clinical trials, Wistar said.
“We are thrilled that DARPA and JPEO-CBRND have chosen Wistar to assemble this exceptional team to focus on advancing potential DMAb countermeasures for the SARS-CoV-2 crisis,” Weiner said in a statement. “Our team combines many different strengths to advance this approach from the bench to the bedside at lightening speed. We have a strong track record of working together to advance DNA-based solutions into the clinic and look forward to advancing these first-in-human studies as a possible risk mitigation approach for COVID-19.”
Leadership at AstraZeneca, Inovio and Indiana U expressed excitement and urgency toward the research, saying quick implementation could leave a lasting effect moving forward in the pandemic.
“This COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique and immediate challenge to the world, one in which DNA treatments have the potential to move us to a future where COVID-19 is much more manageable,” said Pablo Tebas, a professor of infectious diseases at the Perelman School. “We are eager to build upon previous DMAb research and put it to the test against COVID-19.”
Wistar, Inovio and Penn, with the Department of Defense and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, are also in late-stage studies of a synthetic DNA vaccine for COVID-19, which saw some positive results in May.-30-