New UW research illuminates possible path to omicron vaccines, treatments

Dec 28, 2021, 2:42 PM


RNA vaccine being developed to combat Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2), at a microbiology lab at the UW School of Medicine. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

An international team of scientists, including University of Washington researchers, have identified antibodies which neutralize a broad spectrum of COVID-19 variants. The antibodies target aspects of SARS-CoV-2 that remain unchanged as the virus mutates.

The implication of the finding could transform vaccine technology: Vaccines and antibody treatments could be designed around the finding, providing coverage against omicron as well as future iterations of the COVID-19 virus, according to David Veesler, associate professor of biochemistry at the UW School of Medicine in Seattle.

“This finding tells us that by focusing on antibodies that target these highly conserved sites on the spike protein, there is a way to overcome the virus’ continual evolution,” Veesler wrote in a news release.

Veesler spearheaded the project in step with Davide Corti of Humabs Biomed SA, Vir Biotechnology, in Switzerland. Their research was published in a Dec. 23 edition of Nature. Authors included Elisabetta Cameroni and Christian Saliba (Humabs), John E. Bowen (UW Biochemistry), and Laura Rosen (Vir).

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The omicron variant of COVID-19 has troubled researchers in that the virus has an unprecedented number of mutations (37) within its spike protein, which upset the ability of current COVID vaccines to function optimally. Those mutations also allow the virus to infect those with previous immunity via prior infection.

“The main questions we were trying to answer were: how has this constellation of mutations in the spike protein of the omicron variant affected its ability to bind to cells and to evade the immune system’s antibody responses,” Veesler continued.

The researchers were able to identify four classes of antibodies that retain their ability to neutralize omicron. They found that the antibodies target specific areas of the spike protein across mutated versions of omicron, as well as a related group of coronaviruses. Called “conserved areas,” they play an essential function in the protein.

The immune response system recognizes the conserved areas and therefore neutralizes various iterations of coronavirus.

“Designing vaccines and antibody treatments that target these regions could be effective against a broad spectrum of variants that emerge through mutation,” Veesler added.

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New UW research illuminates possible path to omicron vaccines, treatments