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The company is using its LEAPS peptide technology to develop the immunotherapy, which may be able to reduce COVID-19 viral load and tissue damage.
On March 9, 2020, CEL-SCI, a United States-based immunotherapy company, announced that it is developing an immunotherapy with the potential to treat the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) using its patented ligand antigen epitope presentation system (LEAPS) peptide technology. The LEAPS peptides will use conserved regions of coronavirus proteins to stimulate protective cell-mediated T-cell responses and reduce viral load.
The technology can be used to construct immunotherapeutic peptides that exhibit both antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, the company noted in a press release. The immunotherapy products would, therefore, 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 LEAPS peptides against COVID-19 are based on previous studies with pandemic influenza (H1N1), another respiratory virus. These studies were conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In the 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 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 two and 14 days post infection, a period of time that may allow intervention for those at highest risk and with a known exposure.
“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,” said Daniel Zimmerman, PhD, senior vice-president of Research, Cellular Immunology, CEL-SCI, in the company press release.
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 [and] 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.”
CEL-SCI’s studies will utilize the LEAPS peptide approach, which has shown the 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. The studies also showed that the LEAPS immunogens can 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 nucleoprotein 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 to eliminate the source of virus and help subdue the infection.
The company's LEAPS technology is currently also being developed as a therapeutic vaccine for rheumatoid arthritis and is supported by a $1.5-million grant for investigational new drug-enabling studies from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.