A reservoir of biological agents at the University of Iowa is being enlisted in the quest to fight the novel coronavirus.
The Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank (DSHB) at Iowa was created by the National Institutes of Health in 1986 to store and distribute laboratory-produced antibodies used for cancer research and other scientific pursuits. The bank has some 60,000 active clients worldwide, and it sets Iowa apart from other research institutions.
But beginning earlier this month, the bank has pivoted to an additional, critical mission: Distribute antibodies to researchers racing to learn more about the coronavirus and to potentially find ways to blunt its ability to wreak havoc in humans.
“We started to find out that we have a large number of monoclonal antibodies that are important for all kinds of stuff related to research on the coronavirus, for treatment of the coronavirus, and identification of symptoms which have to be repressed because of the coronavirus,” says David Soll, professor in the Department of Biology and the DSHB’s director. “Unbeknownst to a lot of people, we have a large number of antibodies that people will be interested in, and based on our first orders, we could play a huge role in this.”
Soll, who came to Iowa in 1972, has run the bank for the past 24 years as a national resource, creating, storing, and distributing antibodies to researchers at a fraction of the commercial cost. A few weeks ago, he received an unexpected call from representatives at two multinational pharmaceutical companies asking him about select antibodies for use to study COVID-19.
“We started saying, ‘These are potentially big orders,’” Soll says. “And the next thing we said is, ‘How many antibodies do we have that are related to COVID-19 infections?’”
The hybridoma bank also makes important contributions to cancer research.
Soll and his team began an inventory; to date, they have found well over 75 monoclonal antibodies that can be used for COVID-19 research.
“We have monoclonal antibodies that even the biggest companies don’t have,” Soll says.
One of the first interested parties to contact the DSHB sought antibodies that could block a molecular receptor used by the coronavirus to infiltrate and hijack human lung cells, where the virus can take harbor and replicate itself (and thus increases its numbers).
“We found out we have a large number of these targets that would be useful in these types of studies, and these companies woke us up because they found us,” Soll says.
Soll's lab also has begun investigating how it can be directly involved in coronavirus research.
One potential avenue is to find an antibody that targets specific regions of the spiked protein found on each coronavirus that would stop the virus from attaching itself to a lung cell, a crucial step it needs to invade the cell.
“This is going to take us about three months to get these things and verify them,” Soll says. “We don’t have to have the virus. We’re dealing with chemically synthesized proteins that are the proteins of the virus, but no viruses.”
Soll says the urgency to study the coronavirus harkens to a ravaging disease that he recalls clearly from his childhood.
“The biggest thing that ever happened in my life was polio, when I couldn’t go out and play with kids because there was polio in my neighborhood,” he says. “I’m 78 years old, and I remember all that stuff in the ’40s. So why not play a role? We have a collection that is totally related to the war on the coronavirus.”