Apr 17, 2020

LJI Scientists Awarded New Funding to Combat COVID-19

To aid vaccine design, researchers will investigate how a diverse population fights off viral attack

LA JOLLA—The coronavirus behind COVID-19 is new in the human population, meaning few have any natural immunity to the disease. Yet many people are able to fight off the disease through an effective immune system response. Scientists at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) are working to figure out how to help everyone combat the virus.

The laboratory of LJI professor Alessandro Sette, Dr. Biol. Sci., has been awarded $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study how the human immune system recognizes the novel coronavirus. The research team will hunt for sites on the coronavirus surface that trigger an immune system response—sites which may be important to target through a COVID-19 vaccine.

“This will further allow us to tackle key issues for research right now,” says Sette. “The funding will allow us to measure immune responses and ask questions related to how immune responses translate in more or less severe disease, which response we want, which response we want to avoid—and what response should a vaccine induce? We are also eager to make all data available to the scientific community, basic researchers, industry, and vaccine developers as fast as we possibly can.”

“At the end of this, we want a map of the virus that tells us what parts of the virus are recognized by the immune system, and that will guide vaccine design,” says LJI research assistant professor Daniela Weiskopf, a member of the Sette lab.

The new project will take advantage of LJI’s expertise in identifying epitopes, small molecular structures on the surface of a pathogen. When immune cells spot foreign epitopes, they step up to defend the body. This means that scientists designing vaccines need to know which epitopes the immune system can “see.” Past studies in the Sette lab have shed light on vulnerable epitopes on pathogens responsible for diseases such as dengue fever, malaria and tuberculosis.

“We already have everything in house: methods, technical set-ups and expertise. We just have to look at a different virus now,” says Weiskopf.

The lab will investigate epitopes targeted by a diverse group of COVID-19 survivors. They will also analyze samples from uninfected donors. These donors may harbor immune memory against other types of coronavirus that only cause the common cold, and researchers are curious whether these immune cells may also recognize epitopes of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).

The researchers will add their findings to the Immune Epitope Database (IEDB), a free online resource run by Sette and LJI professor Bjoern Peters, Ph.D. Through the IEDB, researchers worldwide can access this coronavirus epitope data and even add their own.

Learn more about COVID-19 research underway at LJI: https://www.lji.org/covid-19/research-efforts-underway/

The new supplement is part of NIH contract #75N93019C00065.

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About La Jolla Institute for Immunology
The La Jolla Institute for Immunology is dedicated to understanding the intricacies and power of the immune system so that we may apply that knowledge to promote human health and prevent a wide range of diseases. Since its founding in 1988 as an independent, nonprofit research organization, the Institute has made numerous advances leading toward its goal: life without disease.