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Cows' Antibodies May Help Humans During Coronavirus Crisis


Turns out that cows may be helpful to us in the pandemic. There's a biotech company in South Dakota using cows to make antibodies for treating human disease. And lately, they've been making antibodies for COVID-19. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: This story is about cows, but it starts with the Department of Defense. DOD is always looking for ways to protect its war fighters from infectious diseases. Traci Pals is with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. As an example, she says her agency was behind the production of an Ebola vaccine.

TRACI PALS: Started out in development in our office, so we did the early development.

PALCA: So it's not surprising that the DOD is also funding SAb Biotherapeutics of Sioux Falls, S.D. CEO Eddie Sullivan said the Pentagon was looking for a company that could deal with any new viral threat.

EDDIE SULLIVAN: And be able to very rapidly produce a specifically targeted high neutralizing antibody that can be used in patients as quickly as possible.

PALCA: Targeted neutralizing antibodies can help slow an infection in someone who is sick or prevent an infection in someone who is exposed to a virus. To make these antibodies quickly, Sullivan's company uses cows. But these aren't just any cows. These are cows that have been given the genes to make a human-like immune system. And Sullivan says there's a good reason to use cows.

SULLIVAN: In order to be able to produce large amounts of human antibodies that are specific to specific diseases.

PALCA: Because when cows make antibodies, they make buckets of them and they produce a variety of antibodies making it more likely one or more will be effective. So if you inject these special cows with what essentially amounts to a coronavirus vaccine, that prompts the cows to make human coronavirus antibodies. Sullivan says they've already shown this concept can work for MERS, an illness caused by a virus similar to the one that causes COVID-19.

SULLIVAN: So we already have considerable background in producing these antibodies to a coronavirus.

PALCA: But whether they work against the COVID-19 coronavirus still has to be shown. To do that, SAb has partnered with William Klimstra at the University of Pittsburgh. Klimstra says the first step is to show the COVID-19 antibodies aren't causing more health problems than they solve.

WILLIAM KLIMSTRA: We're doing an initial antibody tests for that. And then subsequently, we'll be doing efficacy tests.

PALCA: Efficacy tests will show whether the antibodies actually prevent disease in animals exposed to the coronavirus.

KLIMSTRA: We will look at virus production. We'll look at weight loss, signs of infection to evaluate how sick they get.

PALCA: Assuming Klimstra's tests show the antibodies can prevent disease, SAb says they hope to start testing them in humans later this summer.

There was one thing that I was puzzled by about SAb Biotherapeutics. Biotech companies tend to crop up near elite universities, frequently on the East or West coast. So I asked SAb's Eddie Sullivan why his company chose to locate in Sioux Falls. He said the answer is simple - cows love it there.

SULLIVAN: If you're going to be a cow, you would want to live in one of our facilities here in South Dakota.

PALCA: I'll keep that in mind.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.