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Study Reveals New Targets for Next-Generation COVID-19 Vaccines and Tests, Beyond Antibodies

August 5, 2020

Atlantic Health System is one of two sites in U.S. for TScan Therapeutics T cell study of recovered COVID patients

August 5, 2020, Morristown, NJ – Atlantic Health System’s Atlantic Center for Research is one of two sites in the nation to conduct an innovative COVID-19 study sponsored by TScan Therapeutics. The researchers have prepublished their results, which identify new targets for COVID-19 vaccines and tests that go beyond the current focus on COVID antibodies.

“This study was designed to focus on T cells, as opposed to the more common focus on B cells, and it has significantly increased our understanding of how the immune system’s T cells mount a response to SARS-Co-V2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” said Angela Alistar, MD, medical director of GI Medical Oncology and the Breakthrough Treatment Center at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center and local principal investigator for the study.

B cells and T cells are white blood cells that each take a different approach to fighting infection from bacteria and viruses. B cells produce antibodies to the foreign invader and form memory cells that remember the same pathogen for faster antibody production in future infections. T cells can develop into memory cells, just as B cells can, but they do not produce antibodies. T cells directly kill virus-infected cells and are known as “killer T cells.” Sometimes individuals with a very vigorous T cell immune response will be protected from an invader even though they produce low amounts of antibodies from B cells.

“Killer T cells clear viral infections and may be necessary for long-term immunity to coronaviruses,” said Eric Whitman, MD, medical director, Atlantic Health System Cancer Care and co-investigator on the study. “The T cell immune response is much more difficult to measure than the B cell antibody response and is usually only evaluated in a specialized research setting.”

To conduct the study, physician researchers at Atlantic Health System hospitals drew blood samples from 35 recovered COVID-19 patients who volunteered for the study. The blood samples were sent to TScan Therapeutics, where scientists used their core T cell target identification technology to examine patients’ T cells, in order to determine which parts of the virus these cells were targeting. They found that patients’ T cells recognize the same, relatively small number of targets that are unique to COVID-19 and don’t tend to mutate.

“These findings pave the way for diagnostic tests that detect COVID immunity based on T cells instead of antibodies,” added Dr. Whitman. “Interestingly, TScan also found that 90% of T cells recognize targets outside of the spike protein.”

The spike protein has been the focus of the development of COVID vaccines, including those now in Phase 3 trials. Research has shown that this approach, which is targeted at generating neutralizing antibodies rather than T cells, may not be sufficient to induce long term immunity. The new discoveries suggest that second-generation vaccines will need to incorporate T cell targets if they are to generate lasting COVID-19 immunity.

“COVID-19 vaccine development efforts have been progressing rapidly, but to date remain largely focused on causing a neutralizing antibody response against the virus’ spike protein,” said Gavin MacBeath, PhD, chief scientific officer at TScan. “An increasing body of evidence suggests that a T cell response is important in the defense against COVID-19, and T cells that recognize coronaviruses tend to persist much longer than antibodies. By identifying a short list of the most critical T cell targets, we have provided a roadmap to development of follow-on vaccines.”

Read the prepress paper on the study, which has been submitted to a major peer-reviewed journal >

About Atlantic Center for Research

The Atlantic Center for Research serves as the focal point for clinical and translational research at the Atlantic Health System, a leading health system in New Jersey. Clinical and translational studies at Atlantic Health System aim to advance the care of patients with cancer, heart disease, complex neurological and neurosurgical conditions, childhood disease and, most recently, COVID-19. COVID-19 trials brought together experts in these specialties, as well as those in pulmonary-critical care, infectious diseases, oncology-hematology and rheumatology. The Atlantic Center for Research provided the critical infrastructure that made possible the rapid implementation and management of these highly varied studies, providing the means by which research could be rapidly and efficiently implemented outside of a university hospital-based system, bringing healthcare innovation and cutting-edge treatment directly to patients in their local communities.

Learn more about COVID-19 clinical trials at Atlantic Health System >

About Atlantic Health System

Atlantic Health System has a long-standing tradition of providing exceptional patient outcomes and experiences. Home to seven award-winning hospitals including Morristown Medical Center, the number one hospital in NJ according to U.S. News & World Report, Castle Connolly and Newsweek’s World’s Best Hospitals, the system has been ranked first in New Jersey in consumer preference by Monigle and first among health systems in New Jersey as a “best workplace” by both Modern Healthcare and Fortune Magazine.

Many of the system’s programs have received national accolades and designations, including Morristown Medical Center’s Cardiology and Heart Surgery program ranked among the top 30 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report; Morristown Medical Center’s Orthopedics program ranked among the top 35 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Health System’s Cancer Care program, New Jersey’s first and only National Cancer Institute National Community Oncology Research Program. Additionally, Atlantic Health System Neuroscience at Overlook Medical Center, working with Atlantic Mobile Health, was the first in the nation to deploy and use portable Telestroke technology in ambulances for routine pre-hospital assessment of stroke patients.

Powered by a passionate workforce of 17,000 team members and 4,800 affiliated physicians dedicated to building healthier communities, Atlantic Health System serves more than half of the state of New Jersey, including 11 counties and 4.9 million people. The system provides care for the full continuum of health needs across a wide array of settings, including Atlantic Medical Group, one of the largest multi-specialty practices in New Jersey with more than 1,000 physicians and providers, 12 urgent care centers, Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, Atlantic Visiting Nurse and Atlantic Anywhere’s Virtual Visits. Facilitating connections between these services on both land and air is the transportation fleet of Atlantic Mobile Health.

With a clear sense of purpose and an unparalleled culture, Atlantic Health System attracts top leaders in the field of health care, from CEO Brian Gragnolati, who was Chairman of the American Hospital Association in 2019, to the numerous team members who serve as leaders across national clinical associations and research entities.

About TScan Therapeutics

TScan discovers and develops transformative T cell therapies (TCR-T) to treat liquid cancers, solid tumors, and other serious diseases. Our proprietary, high-throughput platform identifies previously uncharacterized, clinically-derived shared T cell antigens and all off-target TCR interactions, to enable the development of highly efficacious TCR-Ts with minimal off-target effects. Lead program TSC-100 is expected to enter clinical development for liquid cancers in 2021, and the Company is advancing additional TCR-Ts for solid cancers. TScan was co-founded by Chair Christoph Westphal (Partner, Longwood Fund) based on pioneering research from the Elledge Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The Company has raised over $80 million to date from leading strategic collaborators and investors including Longwood Fund, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Astellas Venture Management, Novartis Venture Fund, Bessemer Venture Partners, GV, 6 Dimensions Capital, and Pitango Venture Capital.