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Feinstein Institutes receives $11.3M to study virus antibodies, expand testing

Dr. Peter Gregersen, head of the Robert S. Boas Center for Genomics and Human Genetics at Northwell's Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, spoke to Newsday on Friday about the institute getting $11.3 million in federal money to study antibodies to the coronavirus and expand antibody testing. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research is getting $11.3 million in federal money to study antibodies to the coronavirus and expand testing.

"The timing’s perfect," because the research on antibodies will occur as several drug companies are deep into clinical trials of a potential vaccine, said Dr. James Crawford, one of the lead researchers on the antibody study at Feinstein, the Manhasset-based research arm of Northwell Health.

"If we understand how the human immune response to the virus works, both good and bad, we’ll better be able to understand the vaccine’s stimulation" of the immune system to fight the virus, he said.

Vaccines trigger the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that fight disease-producing organisms such as viruses.

By studying antibodies, researchers also will better understand how the virus works, and that could help lead to the development of improved treatments, Crawford said.

COVID-19 is a new disease, so much about the antibodies to it remain unknown. Scientists aren’t even sure that coronavirus antibodies create some level of immunity, although "the certainty is growing" that it does, Crawford said.

People exposed to the virus likely "have immunity at least for this season," he said.

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That seems to clash with cases like that of a 25-year-old Nevada man who became infected twice. That case, details of which were published Monday in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, was the first known re-infection in North America.

Yet the rarity of his re-infection suggests that the overwhelming majority of people have immunity, Crawford said.

But, he said, "We need to understand how strong our [immune] response is, how effective it is and how long it lasts … so a doctor can look a patient in the eye and say, ‘I have a pretty good sense of your resistance to coronavirus.’"

Another question: Do people with a higher amount of coronavirus form a stronger immune response and thus develop a stronger immunity?

Some COVID-19 treatments could blunt immunity, he said. Crawford used President Donald Trump as an example. He received an experimental antibody cocktail.

"If he got experimental antibodies, does that mean he did not form his own?" he asked. "That’s an open question. To answer questions like that you need to do the research."

Feinstein is one of four institutions to receive National Cancer Institute grants as "capacity-building centers" for antibody testing.

"These centers are charged with developing and expanding serological testing capacity and practice in the community," Dr. Dinah Singer, deputy director for scientific strategy and development at the institute, said in a recent media briefing.

The grant stipulates that recipients perform at least 5,000 antibody tests a week. Northwell currently performs about 17,000 a week, and the funding will help expand that by thousands more, Crawford said.

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota also received capacity-building funding, which is part of $306 million in federal funding that the cancer institute received for coronavirus antibody research and testing.

Those other three members of the consortium will work to develop new antibody tests, and Feinstein researchers will assess those new tests on samples from volunteers infected with the coronavirus, Crawford said. The goal is to increase availability of high-quality antibody testing, and to create more detailed tests, along with an understanding of when to use the more detailed tests, he said.

In addition, Feinstein will follow 1,200 people from shortly after infection to track the immune system’s response over a year, he said.

The grant is over five years — an illustration of how scientists do not expect the coronavirus to be stamped out with a vaccine.

"I think coronavirus is going to be with us, but hopefully we can blunt its viciousness and keep it down to a minimum, especially for vulnerable populations," he said.

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