As the outbreak of the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) continues to spread, VIB scientists are quickly mobilizing to try to find a potential treatment for the viral infection. The lab of professor Xavier Saelens (VIB-Ghent University), with its long-standing expertise in developing vaccines and antivirals against respiratory viruses, is very well positioned to help meet the needs of this global crisis.

Since the coronavirus outbreak was reported by China in December 2019, the number of confirmed cases of the virus is increasing rapidly, with cases now reported in 28 countries. All over the world, scientists are rushing to develop vaccines or treatments for the respiratory disease. Research from the lab of professor Xavier Saelens in the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology has already resulted in novel vaccines and antivirals against influenza and RSV that are currently in or making their way to the clinic. 

Saelens and colleagues are committed to fight not only established but also emerging epidemic threats, which is a key strategic focus for the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology. The Saelens team has immediately kicked off a new research line to find an antiviral that could control the new coronavirus. In view of the urgency of the matter, the Center quickly added additional staff to the team and VIB’s Discovery Sciences unit is providing advice. In a collaboration with Dr. Barney Graham at NIAID and Dr. Jason McLellan, associate professor of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, the Saelens lab is now making significant progress in developing a therapeutic antibody against the novel virus.

“The growing crisis requires all hands on deck,” Xavier Saelens comments. “Apprehending the urgent need for a solution, our team is working as fast as possible to develop a protective drug capable of stopping the coronavirus.” Specifically, the scientists already succeeded in identifying a single-domain antibody with high binding affinity to a unique, conserved conformational epitope present on the receptor-binding domain of SARS-CoV and 2019-nCoV. The initial results show that the antibody competes with the human receptor used by the virus to enter the cells. 

​Bert Schepens, staff scientist in the group of Xavier Saelens, comments: “Antibodies are usually extremely effective in defending the body against very specific viral intruders. But coronaviruses come in different shapes. This new coronavirus illustrates the need to develop antiviral antibodies that can tackle a very broad range of these viruses.”

Leveraging VIB’s strong expertise and knowhow in single-domain antibodies, coupled with Dr. McLellan’s expertise in structural biology and protein engineering, the scientists are developing an antibody-based prophylactic/therapeutic drug with the aim to prevent infection in high-risk persons or to stop the virus before disease onset. Single-domain antibodies represent a promising route forward, as these small fragment antibodies could potentially stop virus infection by interfering with the viral proteins that are implicated in human cellular uptake. This is a different yet complementary approach to conventional vaccines, which require the development of an immune response in healthy at risk individuals.

“To complement the critically important efforts of other research groups focusing on vaccines against coronavirus, we are working on antibody-based interventions”, says Xavier Saelens. “Also, instead of vaccines, this antibody is intended to offer immediate protection without the need of an active immune response, which can be crucial in time of global epidemic threats. This could be of particular use in people who are most vulnerable, such as the elderly, whose immune systems sometimes respond poorly to vaccines. In addition, antibody drugs have a well-known path of development to the clinic.”

Currently, the VIB researchers are preparing the preclinical test phase for a coronavirus treatment. Although the first results are highly promising, further research is necessary to confirm the full potential of this antibody-based drug directed against 2019-nCoV. VIB has filed a patent application and is reaching out to industrial partners for further development of the potential drug.

Questions from patients
A breakthrough in research is not the same as a breakthrough in medicine. The realizations of VIB researchers can form the basis of new therapies, but the development path still takes years. This can raise a lot of questions. That is why we ask you to please refer questions in your report or article to the email address that VIB makes available for this purpose: patienteninfo@vib.be. Everyone can submit questions concerning this and other medically-oriented research directly to VIB via this address.