Dimiter Dimitrov, Ph.D., director, Center for Antibody Therapeutics, Pitt, (left) and John Mellors, M.D., chief of infectious diseases, UPMC and Pitt, explain the science behind a potential COVID-19 treatment.

Pittsburgh, Pa. – University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine scientists have announced a breakthrough in treating patients with COVID-19.

Steven Shapiro, M.D., chief medical and scientific officer, UPMC, John Mellors, M.D., chief of infectious diseases, UPMC and Pitt, and Dimiter Dimitrov, Ph.D., director, Center for Antibody Therapeutics, Pitt, announced today that a research team has isolated the smallest biological molecule to date that completely and specifically neutralizes the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the cause of COVID-19.

Scientists described how this antibody component, which is 10 times smaller than a full-sized antibody, has been used to construct a drug—known as Ab8—for potential use as a treatment for people with COVID-19. The antibody, scientists say, will have the potential to block spread of virus throughout body. 

Ab8 could also prevent infection, offering a dose of antibody that lasts from weeks to months.

The new treatment is expected to be ready in early 2021 for manufacture, safety assessments, FDA approval, and to register trials for testing in humans, according to Dr. Mellors.

The researchers report in the journal Cell that Ab8 is highly effective in preventing and treating SARS-CoV-2 infection in mice and hamsters. Its tiny size not only increases its potential for diffusion in tissues to better neutralize the virus, but also makes it possible to administer the drug by alternative routes, including inhalation.

The antibody is versatile. "It is small, potent, penetrates into tissues, fully human, active against resistant viruses, and administered in a variety of ways, including subcutaneous injections (into the skin surface) or inhalation," said Dr. Mellors.

Importantly, it does not bind to human cells—a good sign that it won’t have negative side-effects in people.

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 “Ab8 not only has potential as therapy for COVID-19, but it also could be used to keep people from getting SARS-CoV-2 infections,” said Dr. Mellors, who is also Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Endowed Chair for Global Elimination of HIV and AIDS, Pitt.

Abound Bio, a newly formed UPMC-backed company, has licensed Ab8 for worldwide development. Dr. Dimitrov and Dr. Mellors are founders of Abound Bio.

Dr. Mellors said the antibody treatment will be “relatively inexpensive" to manufacture, but there is not yet a projected cost estimate. "It's too early to talk about pricing when it is not in humans yet," he said.

"There are very few silver linings to COVID, but one will be that the world will be better prepared to treat this pandemic, and God forbid the next one," said Dr. Mellors.

“This is a golden moment in the life of a scientist, when you discover something,” said Dr. Dimitrov. “Our antibodies can save lives.”