In the few weeks since New York City came to a socially distanced halt, more than 250 COVID-19 survivors have visited Rockefeller University’s otherwise quiet campus to contribute their blood to science. Here, a group of immunologists, medical scientists, and virologists is betting that a cure for the disease can be created from the antibodies of these previously ill patients. The study is one of nearly 20 COVID-19 projects (https://www.rockefeller.edu/news/27795-rockefeller-launching-covid19-research/) that have been launched by Rockefeller researchers since early March in an effort to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and speed the development of new treatments. The team’s plan is to find the so-called “elite neutralizers,” the minority of people who have conquered the infection so exceptionally that their antibodies have the potential to become drugs. “We are sifting through millions of antibodies made by each person to find which ones actually neutralize the virus,” says Michel C. Nussenzweig, MD, PhD, the Zanvil A. Cohn and Ralph M. Steinman Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology at The Rockefeller. The project is being led by Dr. Nussenzweig, Dr. Paul Bieniasz, Dr. Marina Caskey, Dr. Theodora Hatziioannou, Dr. Charles M. Rice, and Dr. Davide F. Robbiani. The same approach has shown great potential against other viruses, including HIV, and there are promising signs, even as the study is still recruiting its first waves of donors (http://clinicalstudies.rucares.org/coronavirus.php): i.e., the team has already identified a number of antibodies that are able to block the virus from interacting with its receptor. Those with the best potential will be moved to the next phase of the project, where the researchers will work with industry partners to produce material for clinical testing.
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