I-TEAM: ‘We need actions now’: AU researchers trumpet major breakthrough in COVID-19 fight

Published: Jun. 19, 2020 at 4:51 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Researchers at Augusta University Health have made a major breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19. It basically involves cloning blood cells and figuring out a way to make them live forever.

[MORE: By the numbers: Coronavirus cases in the CSRA]

It didn't take long at all for the virus to create copies of itself in every corner of the globe.

“We need actions now,” Dr. Jin-xiong She said. “So, everyone’s trying to speed up as fast as we can.”

The science is real, but the director of MCG's Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine had an idea that sounds more like science fiction.

“You can not make the blood cells live forever. So they are mortal. We make them immortal by fusing them with an another immortal -- immortal cell line,” She said.

So yeah, he can make blood cells live forever, but that's not his main objective. He's laser-focused on only making certain blood cells live forever -- the ones that target coronavirus.

"We take the blood samples into the laboratory and purify the immune cells in the blood," She said.

She then extracts antibodies or proteins produced by plasma cells. It's easier if you think of them as ammo. It's pretty powerful stuff. The immune system uses it to shoot at the virus.

Patients without enough of this ammo get an infusion from patients who have already recovered. Think of all the donors you need for this to work, though, so She took ones he had in the lab and made copies of them -- lots of copies

"Antibodies are probably the most important class of drugs for many different diseases," She said.

But remember when She said he had to hurry? The traditional approach involves developing an antibody from a mouse, then "humanizing" it. It can take years, and it's not cheap. She's research skipped all those steps -- and the so many clones -- he gets to decide which ones are the best fighters.

"At the university we don't have the capabilities, or the facilities to manufacture the antibodies in a way that can be given to patients," She said.

She is now working with a drug company to make that happen, and he says that process is moving quickly, too.

"If everything goes well, we will hope to initiate the clinical trials by the end of the year," She said.

If these were normal times, it would take a decade before doctors could use them, but things are far from normal. COVID’s speedy spread has to mean a speedy response.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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