Researchers at Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) have discovered an antibody that targets a specific part of the coronavirus, preventing it from infecting human cells, and are moving to develop it to defend against the Covid-19 disease.
Dr Wang Cheng-I, senior principal investigator at A*Star's Singapore Immunology Network, said that his team discovered the antibody in mid-March, finding it in a collection of 30 billion human antibodies made by recombinant DNA technology.
They confirmed its ability to prevent infection early last month.
Developing antibodies is among the quickest routes towards tailored therapies against viral infection, he added.
"Our antibody discovery team... consists of scientists specialising in antibody discovery and engineering. They have deep capabilities in these research areas, having worked on diseases such as chikungunya and dengue fever previously," said Dr Wang.
The team discovered what could potentially be a therapeutic antibody, which is a type of antibody that has been engineered to target disease-related molecules with a high level of specificity.
In this case, the antibody that was discovered is designed to specifically recognise the "crown" of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The Sars-CoV-2 virus has a crown of sugar-coated spike proteins protruding from it. It is these proteins that help the virus infect its host, by latching onto receptors on the human cell.
"By binding to the crown, the antibody prevents the virus from attaching to human cells, and hence prevents infection," said Dr Wang.
To date, there have been no reports of other antibodies that fight Sars-CoV-2 in this manner, he added.
It also has the potential to prevent people from catching the disease.
S'pore's search for a vaccine
Scientists around the world are rushing to produce a Covid-19 vaccine, and there could eventually be several different ones on the market. Researchers in Singapore, working with overseas players, are part of this effort.
A*Star is working on optimising the therapeutic antibody together with Japanese pharmaceutical company Chugai Pharmabody Research, with the aim of engineering it for clinical use.
Dr Wang said the two organisations have a history of collaborating on antibody research, including on projects related to dengue.
He added the antibody will need to be tested in clinical trials, but there is currently no fixed timeline for this as the project is still in the early stages of research.
Chugai's president and chief operating officer, Dr Osamu Okuda, said: "The outbreak of novel coronavirus is the most devastating threat that people around the world have faced in decades.
"I am thrilled that Chugai can join forces with A*Star in the global effort to help address this threat, and hope that together, we can open the possibility of clinical use as soon as possible."