Researchers study the ability of T cells to battle COVID in clinical trial

Doctors have been using antibodies to help fight COVID-19, but at Atlantic Health, researchers recently released the results of a clinical trial that uses T cells to battle the virus. Dr. Eric Whitman and his oncology team are behind the research.

“Antibodies are chemicals made by white blood cells that interact with the invader ,whether it’s a virus or potentially a cancer, and just neutralize it. So the chemicals are sitting there and the B cells, which make antibodies, are sitting there and they remember, aha that’s the coronavirus, let’s make the antibodies,” Whitman, the medical director of Atlantic Health System Cancer Care, said. “T cells are just a different way our immune system interacts. Instead of making chemicals like antibodies, they recognize and directly kill the invader, kill the coronavirus, kill the cancer.”

The health system is one of only two places in the world that was part of a study with the company T-Scan. It looks at how the body’s immune system responds to the virus by looking at white blood cells of people who had COVID-19 and recovered.

“For technical reasons it’s easier to look at the antibodies and the two usually go hand in hand, so usually the antibody response predicts the T cell response. Not always, and that’s the problem,” said Dr. John Halperin, the medical director of Atlantic Center for Research.

“The T-Scan study clearly shows that our T cells make a memory of coronavirus. The question of course is, is that memory effective in the future? Will that memory protect us if we have it? We don’t know that yet,” said Whitman.

Whitman says the study could give us researchers a different strategy for designing a vaccine.

“What if you make a vaccine that focuses on teaching your T cells that this is bad? That the next time you see a coronavirus you kill it,” he said.

The T cell research is just one of 15 clinical trials related to COVID-19 at Atlantic Health.

“The traditional mindset is that clinical trials are done at academic medical centers, but Atlantic Health System, it’s a very hybrid organization where there is this huge commitment to research and there is this robust infrastructure in place that allows sponsors to come in and get enrollment quickly,” said Atlantic Center for Research Director Dr. Mahalaxmi Aburi.

“In one case, we were able to open a clinical trial in six days,” Whitman said. “Usually that sort of process can take months.”

They’ve enrolled more than 150 patients to try to improve the treatment of COVID-19.

“The drugs basically fall into two categories: anti-viral drugs, drugs that directly attack the virus and help us recover from the infection, and then drugs that help us deal with the secondary effects of the virus. So what kills people, what makes people really sick from coronavirus, is not the infection; it’s the aftermath. It’s your body’s overwhelming response to fight the infection which can lead to a lot of secondary issues in your lungs, in your kidneys, in your heart, in your body,” Whitman said.

There are still many unknowns when it comes to COVID-19, but because vaccine studies are being approached in different ways, Whitman says he’s hopeful there may be one soon.