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Vanderbilt’s Dr. James Crowe on Developing COVID-19 Antibody Therapy and Dolly Parton’s $1 Million Donation: ‘I Felt Encouraged’

Great strides are being made to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Vanderbilt’s Dr. James Crowe on Developing COVID-19 Antibody Therapy and Dolly Parton’s $1 Million Donation: ‘I Felt Encouraged’
Dr. James Crowe, Director Vanderbilt Vaccine Center; Photo credit: John Russell

As doctors and nurses around the world work tirelessly to care for those affected by  COVID-19, there are many other healthcare professionals actively searching for a cure –  some of whom are in Nashville’s own backyard at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.  

Director of Vanderbilt Vaccine Center Dr. James Crowe and his team are currently working on an antibody therapy that would help stop the spread of coronavirus until a vaccine is ready for public use. According to John Hopkins’ University’s Center For Systems Science and Engineering, there are 1.5 million cases of coronavirus worldwide, causing nearly 95,000 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the U.S. has more than 427,000 cases with nearly 15,000 deaths. A common misconception when the outbreak occurred is that it’s similar to the common flu. However, Crowe points out there are crucial differences. “One of the things that might be different about the coronavirus and flu is that it appears people are quite infectious in days before they have symptoms, and that’s less true about flu usually,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “When you’re not showing symptoms, you’re not particularly infectious with flu, and when you start having sneezing or coughing, by then you’re infectious.”  

Crowe Lab, which is part of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, specializes in researching global viruses including Ebola and Zika to create antibodies that target them individually. Crowe and his team are now building an antibody therapy specifically for COVID-19 that would not only decrease the spread of the virus, but also help those infected to recover and keep non-infected persons from contracting it. What makes the antibody therapy unique is that when a person is injected with a vaccine, their body responds to the virus using antibodies to defend itself in case the virus re-enters.

“We have been working for several decades to develop technologies so we can harness the body’s immune system and turn that into a therapy for other people like a drug. We get immune cells from people who have survived and we find the individual cells that fight off the virus that we’re interested in. We capture that cell and grab the genes out of it, which is the recipe that we use to make synthetic bodies,” Crowe explains about the process of creating antibody therapies, adding that antibodies function “immediately” in one’s system. Researchers in Crowe Lab will utilize the technologies they’ve used to study other viruses to make a specific antibody treatment for COVID-19 by renewing antibodies from people who have recently recovered from it. “We can reproduce the immunity from one person in a factory basically and give it to millions of people,” he notes.  

Erica Armstrong, a research assistant, pipettes a solution into small tubes of suspended B cells Tuesday, February 11, 2020 in the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. This is a first step in the effort to isolate B cells from human serum that produce coronavirus-neutralizing antibodies; Photo credit: Erin Smith, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

Transferring immunity through the antibody therapy will play an important role in protecting vulnerable people such as the elderly, infants and those who’ve had life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. The main goal of the therapy is to save time and lives until a vaccine is readily available. “As soon as we put the antibodies in, the person’s immune,” Crowe describes. “It sort of mimics a vaccine, and in a way, it’s like a bridge toward a later time when we have vaccines because the antibodies don’t last forever, that’s their limitation.” The therapy can be used in multiple forms, one being to prevent infection completely. This means that persons who are not currently infected with the virus, but could be exposed in the future, would be safe should they enter a high-risk environment such as a hospital. The second methodology is post exposure prophylaxis, which prevents people from spreading the virus who have been exposed to it and become infected at a low level, but don’t show symptoms. The third purpose is to treat people who are infected, as the antibodies will kill the virus. Crowe’s goal is to test the antibody therapy through safety trials this summer in hopes of putting it on the market in the winter to get ahead of a potential second outbreak of coronavirus.

Dolly Parton recently pledged a $1 million to Vanderbilt for COVID-19 research, a gift that enables Crowe and his staff to continue these life-saving efforts. “I felt encouraged about not just our research and Vanderbilt’s work, but in general,” Crowe says of the impact of Parton’s donation, citing her as an “amazing philanthropist.” Parton’s money, along with the other donations Vanderbilt has received, allows Crowe and his team to devote their full attention to working in the lab. “We’re all working with the presumption that what progress we’ve made can keep going. She jump-started a lot of programs, or the programs [that] were in motion, she’s providing the fuel that they can keep operating,” he continues. “We couldn’t start at the scale that we’re working at Vanderbilt without her gift and the gifts of others.”

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While Crowe admits that he and his colleagues were taken by surprise by the pandemic, he is following Parton’s lead and remaining positive during these trying times. He praises the public health measures that have been put in place to halt the spread of the virus such as social distancing, working from home and temporarily closing public gathering spaces. He’s also “optimistic” that progress will be made on beneficial vaccines and drugs over the next six months. But perhaps the most important factor he’s leaning on is what he believes Parton’s donation symbolizes – hope. “We need to keep our eyes ahead, not on the dark moments that are now, but look ahead to the future that’s not very far away,” he proclaims. “Her gift in part was a statement to keep the faith and look forward, and I feel the same way. I think we’re going to get through this and we’ll get through it together.”

To donate to Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research and relief efforts, visit VanderbiltHealth.org.