But one day in 2009, as Mascola sat in the lab’s rest room about to eat a sandwich, one of his scientists walked up to him with a big smile on his face: They had found the non-glow they were looking for. .
This antibody came from a man known as Donor 45. Doria-Rose, who met with the study participants when they came for their regular checkups, said Donor 45 was an extremely private gay black man in the area. sixty from the Washington, DC area. . They named the antibody VRC01 – the first from the Vaccine Research Center.
It took almost a decade to develop a drug from this antibody and set up a clinical trial to make sure it was safe and effective. Other HIV researchers, taking different routes, have come up with antiretroviral drugs – the famous “triple cocktail” – that effectively treat and prevent HIV infections by interfering with the virus’s ability to reproduce. The crisis was not over. People have contracted HIV again, but with antiretrovirals they could live almost normal lives. As access to these drugs has grown, efforts to use antibodies to make anti-HIV drugs have become less urgent. It got plugged in, a clinical trial was started, but not many people were paying much attention to it.
And then came Covid-19. That day in January 2020, Mascola immediately saw that everything he and his colleagues had learned from studying anti-HIV antibodies could be harnessed to treat the new pathogen. It would be “the culmination of a lifetime’s work,” he says.
Mascola is a sort of sober man. It communicates with the economy. “When he puts an exclamation mark in an email, you know you’ve done something phenomenal!” Doria-Rose wrote to me. So when he came to his office, they got down to business. Doria-Rose began asking team members to turn on the cell sorting machines and fill the tiny muffin tins and glowing test cells. They revised their work schedules and went all out.
Even before you are born, your immune system has started to make antibodies to fight off potential pathogens. They are incredibly diverse: the average person has billions of B cells that can produce between 9 and 17 million distinct antibodies. Antibody molecules are Y-shaped, and their ends have nooks and crannies that can lock onto specific viruses or bacteria. When this binding occurs, the antibodies prevent invaders from attaching to healthy cells and drive them away. The really neat thing, however, is not only that an antibody can seek out its enemy for destruction, but the act of locking onto the pathogen is also a signal for the immune system to take more advantage of it. this particular shape. Even a single antibody can summon the troops, allowing your immune system to wage war against an invading army.
Unfortunately, when an entirely new pathogen like HIV or the novel coronavirus emerges, a well-adapted form is rare, even in our huge, natural, pre-existing repertoire of antibodies. Vaccines, which usually consist of a weakened virus or fragments of viruses, cause the body to develop a locking antibody – an antibody that will bind to the true pathogen and neutralize it when we encounter it in the world. This is called active immunity. The body’s immune system goes into basic training, and it emerges with apt fighting strength. In contrast, antibody therapies like the ones Mascola worked on for HIV give you passive immunity: an army of mercenaries is brought into the body to temporarily do the work for you.
The discovery of passive immunity dates back to the late 19th century, when Emil Behring, a German scientist with sad, hooded eyes and a thin beard, began injecting 220 children with animal blood. The children had all contracted diphtheria, a horrible disease that slowly suffocated its victims. Behring had tried to treat the disease, experimenting with rabbits, guinea pigs, goats and horses, giving the infected animals the blood of recovered animals. He didn’t know why, but the sick animals got better. So he gave the children the blood of animals exposed to diphtheria, and in 1894 he published the results: About twice as many children than what is normally expected to survive actually survived. Behring’s “serum therapy” approach was considered so successful that he later received the very first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.