San Diego biologist to lead effort to treat coronavirus infection

Erica Ollmann Saphire (Photo credit: The Scripps Research Institute.)

A San Diego biologist, Erica Ollmann Saphire, who earned high acclaim for fighting the Ebola virus will lead an international team of scientists in the search for antibodies that can treat COVID-19.

This is a strategy that public health officials say could end up saving countless lives as the pandemic unfolds.

Saphire will direct the team from her lab at the La Jolla Institute (LJI), which received 1.73 million dollars Monday from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a coalition that will initially have contributors from about a dozen institutions.

The figure could quadruple.

“There are universities, companies and laboratories that are discovering therapeutic candidates that might work against the coronavirus,” said Saphire, who helped run a similar team to battle Ebola.

The Gates Foundation is asking us to take everyone’s molecules, compare them side by side, and figure out which ones would be right for human treatment,” she said.

The team is focusing on antibodies because they represent the first line of defense for humans.

Antibodies identify bacteria and viruses, some which can be harmful or deadly.

The antibodies latch on to the bad ones and remove them from the body, much as a bouncer would remove an unruly customer from a night club.

Scientists can screen for potentially useful antibodies fairly quickly, which is important because the coronavirus is spreading fast.

Public health authorities said on Sunday that the virus could end up killing between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans.

Saphire’s collaborators will include Scripps Research in La Jolla, where she was formerly a faculty member.

That’s where she accomplished a major breakthrough, figuring out the structure of a key protein that allows the Ebola virus to invade cells.

That discovery and others are helping scientists come up with better drugs to fight Ebola.

The Gates Foundation’s 1.73-million-dollar gift is meant to give scientists the time and equipment needed to focus on the coronavirus in the way they had earlier focused on Ebola.

“In real time, the Gates Foundation has enabled (LJI) to quickly shift research priorities, mobilise the tremendous expertise and resources available at the institute and, through collaboration, have a global impact,” Steven Wilson, LJI’s chief operating officer said in a statement. (dpa/NAN)