Researchers are working on a way to speed development of vaccines and monoclonal antibody drugs for COVID-19 and other illnesses, shortening the time from collection of volunteers’ blood samples to identification of potentially useful antibodies from months to weeks.
As described in Science Advances, the new technique employs cryo-electron microscopy, or cryoEM, which involves freezing the biological sample to view it with the least possible distortion.
Currently, “generation of monoclonal antibodies involves several steps, is expensive, and typically takes somewhere on the order of two to three months, and at the end of that process you still need to perform structural analysis of the antibodies” to figure out where they attach themselves to their target, and how they actually work, explained Andrew Ward of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
In experiments using the new approach to look for antibodies to HIV, “we flipped the process on its head… by starting with structure,” Ward said. Because cryoEM affords such high resolution, instead of having to laboriously sort through antibody-producing immune cells one by one to identify promising antibodies, the process of identifying antibodies, mapping their structure and seeing how they are likely to attack viruses and other targets goes much faster, he added. “The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for such robust and rapid technologies,” his team concluded.