Illustration of a coronavirus

Biotech Launches Development of Immunotherapy to Treat COVID-19 Coronavirus Infection

Cancer immunotherapy developer, CEL-SCI Corporation is working on an immunotherapy with the potential to treat the COVID-19 coronavirus using its patented .  The Ligand Antigen Epitope Presentation System (LEAPS)  platform technology peptides will utilize conserved regions of coronavirus proteins to stimulate protective cell mediated T cell responses and reduce viral load.  The LEAPS peptide technology can be used to construct immunotherapeutic peptides that exhibit both antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.  Consequently, these products not only target the virus infection against which they are directed, but also elicit the appropriate protective response(s) against it.

Predictions of success using the LEAPS peptides against COVID-19 coronavirus are based on previous studies conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) with another respiratory virus, pandemic influenza (H1N1).  In those studies, LEAPS peptides elicited protection of mice from morbidity and mortality after the introduction of infection by activating appropriate T cell responses rather than an inflammatory response.

Although individuals of all ages are susceptible to COVID-19 coronavirus infection, the elderly and individuals with compromised lung function or immunosuppression are at highest risk for severe morbidity and mortality.  It is believed that, in most cases, onset of symptoms takes between 2- and 14-days post infection, a period of time that may allow intervention for those at highest risk and with a known exposure.

Daniel Zimmerman, Ph.D. Senior VP of Research, Cellular Immunology at CEL-SCI Corporation, said, ”We believe that a LEAPS COVID 19 coronavirus peptide will reduce or arrest the progression of the virus infection and prevent tissue damage from inflammation resulting from lung infection by the virus.  In short, we believe that we can stimulate the correct immune responses to the virus without producing unwanted inflammatory responses associated with lung tissue damage.  That should be particularly important in the older population who is at highest risk of dying from this virus.”

CEL-SCI CEO Geert Kersten added, “CEL-SCI is currently in discussion with multiple health care partners to expeditiously move this critically important work forward.  We look forward to combining the LEAPS technology, experience and expertise of CEL-SCI with the expertise of various partners to promote the rapid development of a LEAPS/COVID-19 product to help particularly those patients who are at very high risk from COVID-19 infection.”

COVID-19 is a member of the coronavirus family which “jumped” to humans from an animal reservoir.  Unlike human coronaviruses, which include the second most common cause of the common cold, COVID-19, like its cousins SARS and MERS coronaviruses, can replicate at the higher temperatures within the human lungs and, as a result, can cause highly morbid/mortal disease.  It is thought that the morbidity and mortality in the at-risk population is due to lung damage resulting from inflammatory immune responses to the virus.

CEL-SCI’s studies will utilize the LEAPS peptide approach which is unique in its proven ability in animals to elicit both a cell mediated antiviral response and an anti-inflammatory immunomodulating response by activating CD8 T lymphocytes.  Previous studies showed that LEAPS immunogens can prevent lethal infection by herpes simplex virus (HSV) and influenza A, and stop the inflammatory disease progression of rheumatoid arthritis in animal models.  LEAPS peptides against HSV demonstrated that the T cell response was sufficient to prevent viral disease, and if there was residual virus production, anti-viral antibody was generated to further control the spread of the virus.

The proposed LEAPS peptides are directed towards antigens within the NP protein of COVID-19 that elicit cytolytic T cell responses.  Unlike glycoprotein spike antigens which are important for antibody based vaccines, these antigens are less variable between viral strains and less likely to change in response to antibodies elicited by prior infection or other vaccines.  Cytolytic T cell responses attack the virus infected cellular “factories” within the infected host in order to eliminate the source of the virus and help subdue the infection.

The LEAPS  platform technology has demonstrated in several animal models the ability to design antigen-specific immunotherapeutic peptides that preferentially direct the immune response to a cellular (e.g. T-cell), humoral (antibody) or mixed response and are also capable of enhancing  important  T-regulatory (Treg) responses. Therefore, the LEAPS technology provides the  opportunity to develop immunotherapeutic products for diseases for which disease associated antigenic peptide(s)  sequences have already been identified, such as: a number of infectious diseases, some cancers, autoimmune diseases (e.g., RA), allergic asthma and allergy, and select CNS diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s) and the COVID-19 virus.

The Company’s LEAPS technology is currently also being developed as a therapeutic vaccine for rheumatoid arthritis and is supported by $1.5 million grant for IND enabling studies from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

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