Harnessing T Cells to Potentially Protect the Vulnerable from COVID-19

October 27, 2020
John Parkinson

These vital cells that are recovered from COVID-19 patients might be able to help people with compromised immune systems due to cancer therapy or transplantation.

Scientists can harvest T-cells from the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients and multiplied in the lab and maintain the ability to target proteins that are key to the virus's function, according to a new study.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Blood.

"We found that many people who recover from COVID-19 have T-cells that recognize and target viral proteins of SARS-CoV-2, giving them immunity from the virus because those T-cells are primed to fight it," study leader Michael Keller, MD, a pediatric immunology specialist at Children's National Hospital, said. "This suggests that adoptive immunotherapy using convalescent T-cells to target these regions of the virus may be an effective way to protect vulnerable people, especially those with compromised immune systems due to cancer therapy or transplantation."

Investigators from the Cellular Therapy Program at Children’s National believed that the expanded group of COVID-19 virus-targeting T-cells could be infused into immunocompromised patients, helping them build an immune response before exposure to the virus and therefore protecting the patient from a serious or life-threatening infection.

This hypothesis came after previous research done looking at the safety of T-cells with antiviral activity in a phase 1 trial looking at adenovirus, BK virus, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, Human Herpesvirus 6 and human parainfluenza-3.

The T-cells were mainly grown from the peripheral blood of donors who were seropositive for SARS-CoV-2. The study also identified that SARS-CoV-2 directed T-cells have adapted to predominantly target specific parts of the viral proteins found on the cell membrane, revealing new ways that the immune system responds to COVID-19 infection.

“In this study, we demonstrate that ex vivo expanded CSTs may be easily generated from convalescent patients, following recovery from COVID-19, and recognize multiple immunodominant epitopes within membrane protein, which represent class II restricted T-cell epitope “hot spots”, the investigators wrote.

In addition, the authors note that using T-cells to develop a vaccine may offer another viable option for researchers. The current development has been targeting the spike proteins.

The Cell Therapy Program is now seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a phase 1 trial that will track safety and effectiveness of using COVID-19-specific T-cells to boost the immune response in patients with compromised immune systems, particularly for patients after bone marrow transplant.