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U.S. military researchers turn to the Berkeley Lights Platform in the fight against pandemics

For over 60 years, Pentagon agencies like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Joint Pathology Institute have partnered with researchers to solve some of the greatest public health challenges facing humanity today—and tomorrow. For a recent 60 Minutes segment, Bill Whitaker reported on the landmark innovations supported by the Pentagon and being deployed in the fight against SARS-CoV-2. Among those featured was Dr. James Crowe, an infectious disease researcher at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center using the Berkeley Lights Platform to develop antibody treatments for COVID-19 in record time.

Dr. Crowe first joined the team at the Joint Pathology Institute in 2005, after scientists, in collaboration with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the CDC, broke the news that they had resurrected the virus responsible for the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic. Working with blood cells of Spanish flu survivors, he located and then genetically sequenced immune cells that reacted to the 1918 virus. With this DNA sequence, he developed an antibody therapy that successfully cured a lab animal infected with the virus. This breakthrough led to a DARPA grant competition to produce antibody antidotes capable of stopping future pandemics. After successfully finding a cure in 78 days to a simulated Zika virus outbreak, his second simulation was interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Dr. Crowe and his team continued his work with a new focus on COVID-19. But he faced a problem—time. Finding the right antibodies in the blood of COVID-19 survivors requires screening millions of cells. Typically, this process can take up to 24 months. But by utilizing the Opto™ Plasma B Discovery workflow on Berkeley Lights’ Beacon® optofluidic system, Dr. Crowe’s lab was able to deliver treatment to drugmaker AstraZeneca in a record 25 days.

In just one day, the Opto Plasma B Discovery workflow was able to profile tens of thousands of B cells from recovered patients and select the antibodies that neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus. With the Berkeley Lights Platform, Dr. Crowe and his team quickly identified lead molecules that bind and block the interaction of SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein with the human ACE-2 receptor—an essential interaction for infection of human cells. This allowed Dr. Crowe’s team to deliver sequences of confirmed SARS CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies to manufacturing partners in just 18 days.

In June 2020, AstraZeneca announced licensing COVID-19-neutralising antibodies discovered in the Vanderbilt study and advancing the top two candidates to clinical evaluation. Two of these antibodies, discovered by the Beacon system, now form the basis of the AstraZeneca antibody cocktail AZD7442 for the treatment of COVID-19 that is currently in Phase III clinical trials, which has demonstrated efficacy against variants of COVID-19 in early testing. Read about how Vanderbilt University used the Berkeley Lights Platform to rapidly select high-performing antibodies here.

The advances made possible by the Berkeley Lights’ Beacon optofluidic system will shape responses to future emerging pathogens. But as Dr. Crowe knows well, speed in developing and manufacturing therapeutics is critical to stopping the chain of transmission in its tracks. This can only be achieved through collaboration and the use of cutting-edge technology, such as the partnership between Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Watch the entire 60 Minutes interview with Dr. Crowe: