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Science and Innovations

Study: Antibodies From Other Coronaviruses May Help In Fight Against COVID-19

Northern Arizona University

A new study from the Translational Genomics Research Institute and Northern Arizona University suggests some people may have useful antibodies in their blood that can fight against COVID-19 from earlier, similar illnesses. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with lead author Dr. Jason Ladner about the research.

First of all, what is an antibody and why is it important?

Antibodies are proteins, they’re these Y shaped proteins, and they have these highly diverse binding sites at the tips of the fork of Y… But we’ve got a huge variety of antibodies that recognize different binding sites and that means these binding sites can recognize different proteins…. What they do is they recognize foreign antigens, foreign proteins, they bind to them and they prevent them from doing whatever is harmful for your body. …

This study you were looking into cross-reactive antibodies, what does that mean?

That means a single type of antibody with a particular type of binding site can bind to and recognize multiple different viral species or types of viruses. In this case, we’ve got what we call endemic coronaviruses. These are coronavirus that have been circulating within the human population for a while, they’re generally associated with pretty mild symptoms, kind of a common cold. Then we have this new pandemic coronavirus. We were interested to see whether we can detect antibodies that can bind and recognize both of these types of coronaviruses, the pandemic coronavirus and one of the endemic common cold coronaviruses. So it’s the same antibody molecule, able to recognize and bind to both types of coronaviruses.

So what does this mean on a practical level. If you had a previous kind of coronavirus, and you have those antibodies, is that going to help you out now?

It’s a good question and it’s something we don’t fully understand yet. What’s clear from our work is that some people do have these preexisting antibodies that can recognize SARS coronavirus 2 but what we don’t know yet is what role these antibodies may play in actually protecting from disease….But we know based on the region of the proteins these bind that have the potential to be protective.

Why does this research matter?  

Obviously in a basic research sense we’re interested in understanding how our immune system responds  to infections. But… when we’re thinking about vaccination, if we can vaccinate people in a way that leads to produce antibodies that are highly protective and cross-reactive, then maybe those antibodies can not only protect them against SARS coronavirus 2 but, God forbid, SARS coronavirus 3 in the future or whatever the next coronavirus pandemic could potentially be. 

What else do you want people to know about this research or COVID-19 in general?

For COVID 19 in general I think there are two important things that we need to keep in mind. The vaccinates that are approved in the U.S. are really good. These vaccines are a game changer in the fight against the virus. Given that it’s only been a year since the pandemic started this achievement is incredible and everybody should get the vaccine when they can. The second is that we’re not out of the woods yet. And with the incredibly high rate of infections right now and these new more infectious variants that are spreading, we really cannot afford to let our guards down right now. We need to stay vigilant, we need to wear our masks, and we need to make sure we continue to follow the social distancing protocols.

Jason Ladner, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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