QIMR Berghofer scientists are urging Queenslanders who have recovered from COVID-19 to help them discover how the human immune system fights the disease – and hopefully develop immunotherapies to treat very sick patients.
There have been 1051 confirmed cases in Queensland with six deaths – but 1027 people have recovered to date.
The researchers are calling on 50 adults from southeast Queensland, who tested positive to the virus and have subsequently recovered and been released from quarantine, to take part.
Volunteers will need to visit one of 11 participating pathology laboratories in Brisbane, Ipswich or on the Gold Coast to provide a blood sample.
The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Translational and Human Immunology Group, Dr Corey Smith, said his team would examine how those people’s immune systems had responded to the virus with the end goal of developing a new T cell immunotherapy.
“T cells – which are a type of immune or white blood cell – play a critical role in fighting diseases and infection,” Dr Smith said.
“Generally, as we get older, our T cells become less effective at fighting diseases.
“We believe it’s likely that in patients who are getting less sick from COVID-19, it’s because their T cells are responding well and fighting this virus.
“But we need to test that theory in the laboratory and that’s why we need blood samples from recovered patients.
“We will grow their T cells in the lab and screen them against the virus to see if they fight it.”
Dr Smith said in the next phase of the research, his team hoped to take blood samples from seriously unwell COVID-19 patients in hospital and understand how their T cells were responding to the virus.
“We hope that understanding how these cells work in people with different degrees of the disease will ultimately help us develop immune monitoring strategies to determine which patients are more likely to get sick. We also hope it helps us develop an immunotherapy for this virus,” Dr Smith said.
“My colleague and collaborator Professor Rajiv Khanna has already successfully developed T cell immunotherapies targeting viruses, including chronic viral infections in organ transplant recipients.
“Once we understand the immune responses to COVID-19, we hope to use Professor Khanna’s method to develop immunotherapies against it.
“The aim would be to take T cells from donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and turbo charge those T cells in the laboratory to recognise and attack the virus. We hope this approach could save the lives of the sickest patients.”
Dr Smith said the researchers were hopeful an immunotherapy could be developed in six to eight months.
“While a lot of the scientific community is rightly looking to develop a vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19, we don’t know exactly when one will be available. Even once a vaccine is developed, it’s likely some people will still get the virus, as we see with influenza,” Dr Smith said.
“We want to use our expertise in immunotherapy to help the sickest patients who struggle to fight this virus,” he said.
“Emerging research indicates severe COVID-19 is associated with problems in the T cell response similar to those which occur in other viral diseases in humans.
“If we can develop an effective immunotherapy we can manufacture it here in Brisbane at QIMR Berghofer’s cell therapy manufacturing facility, Q-Gen Cell Therapeutics.
“Fighting this coronavirus is a global effort and we are determined to use our advanced skills in immunotherapy and our manufacturing capacity to help.”
The research is being funded by philanthropic donations, including from Mr Clive Berghofer AM and the Brazil Family Foundation.
Any Queenslanders who want to take part in the study and who have tested positive to COVID-19, recovered, and been cleared by Queensland Health to end self-quarantine, can sign up by visiting www.qimrberghofer.edu.au/covid19-immunity-study/.