What may be an effective weapon against the novel coronavirus is coming from an unlikely source: a barn in South Dakota.
SAb Biotherapeutics, a South Dakota-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, plans to begin human trials of a COVID-19 antibody treatment using plasma from cows.
To do so, scientists genetically engineered the cattle's immune system to produce human antibodies that have the ability to fight against the SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes the COVID-19 disease that has killed over 460,000 people worldwide.
The cows are essentially injected with a coronavirus vaccine, prompting their immune system to try and ward off the infection, NPR explained. The cows then "produce a specifically targeted high-neutralizing antibody that can be used in patients," Dr. Eddie Sullivan, CEO and co-founder of SAb Biotherapeutics, told NPR.
Antibodies are produced by immune systems after the body detects the presence of a foreign substance otherwise known as an antigen. Antibodies then latch onto antigens in an effort to remove them from the body.
The hope is that these targeted high-neutralizing antibodies will either slow an infection in someone who is already sick or prevent someone from becoming infected after being exposed to the virus, NPR explained.
An antibody "therapy for COVID-19 could prove critical in combatting this pandemic as it could potentially treat severely ill patients and provide protective antibodies for front-line responders, mission-critical staff, and high-risk populations, such as the elderly and immune-compromised," Sullivan explained in a company statement.
Companies typically turn to cultured cells or tobacco plants when manufacturing antibodies for treating or preventing diseases, according to Science Magazine. However, unlike other companies, SAB has been leveraging dairy cows to develop treatments for infectious diseases, with the coronavirus being its latest hurdle, the outlet explained.
SAb has previously developed more than a dozen effective antibodies in response to outbreaks including Ebola, Zika, Dengue and Hantavirus.
The company's production plans have been supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Defense, NPR reported.
Researchers from the company claim cows have a more robust immune response than humans. Additionally, using mammals eliminates the need for the firm to identify, screen, and draw blood from recovering volunteers.
The approach may open the door to "medicines that are potentially more potent, safer, and longer-lasting than current antibody therapies," SAb said.
Aside from that, cows offer a lot of plasma: "Between 30 and 45 liters of plasma every month from each animal," Sullivan told NPR.
The "therapeutic candidate for COVID-19 deploys the same natural immune response to fight the disease as recovered patients, but with a much higher concentration of targeted antibodies," the company said.
SAb says it's "on track" to initiate clinical trials for its potential COVID-19 treatment this summer but did not specify how many people would participate or how long the trial would last.