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Laying the Groundwork for COVID-19 Treatments

September 22, 2020

Associate Investigator Shawn Jobe, MD, PhD, believes the immune system holds the key to understanding how the virus functions.


Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, researchers around the world have worked tirelessly to better understand the disease, its origins and its effects. Investigators at Versiti Blood Research Institute (BRI) are no exception; they have been examining everything from the cell proteins responsible for the virus to novel treatment options, including convalescent plasma.

Associate Investigator and Medical Director of the Comprehensive Center for Bleeding Disorders Shawn Jobe, MD, PhD, is working closely with other investigators at the BRI, including Renren Wen, PhD, Weiguo Cui, MD, PhD, and Demin Wang, PhD, to understand how immune cells react when confronted with the COVID-19 virus. “This is an opportunity for us to work together to use some cutting-edge tools to ask questions at the level of an individual cell and a patient in ways we’ve never been able to before in any other disease,” he said. “We’re going to apply these techniques to COVID-19.”

Dr. Jobe and his colleagues believe that understanding the body’s immune response to the virus is of utmost importance. Instead of the immune system reacting normally to a virus, like it would a cold or the flu, it produces an overly exuberant reaction in an effort to protect itself—something that can have dangerous side effects, including blood clots. “We hope to learn more about the mechanisms behind immunoprotection and immune memory,” he said. “We have a hypothesis that maybe the immune system just goes wrong.” Understanding this immune response may be the key to finding ways to treat—or even prevent—COVID-19.

One such treatment is convalescent plasma, or plasma from donors who have recovered from COVID-19. Currently, researchers know that recovered patients have developed antibodies to the virus that are useful in treating patients who are critically ill. But they are still trying to understand what, exactly, the antibodies are and how they are developed; understanding this may help inform a more effective convalescent plasma therapy. “If we understand the immunopathogenic mechanism, we can design targeted therapies to block it,” Dr. Jobe said.

To accomplish this, Dr. Jobe and his colleagues at Versiti and the Medical College of Wisconsin, including Parmeswaran Hari, MD, and Mary Beth Graham, MD, are collecting samples from COVID-19 convalescent plasma donors and recipients that they hope will help them better understand the virus. “We are intensely proud of our efforts and think that we will provide fundamental insights to COVID-19,” he said.

He likens the process to solving a problem in reverse. We know what the answer is—but what is the question and what are the steps to arrive at that answer? “We need to understand this,” he said. “Hopefully, COVID just goes away, but we’re not making that assumption. We need to understand the fundamental mechanisms behind this and what’s going on.”

Identifying each step in the process will also provide investigators insight into how the immune system responds to other viruses and diseases, including cancer, and give them the knowledge they need to improve existing therapies and develop new ones to better treat patients. “These fundamental mechanisms pave the groundwork for everything,” Dr. Jobe said.

About the expert: Shawn Jobe, MD, PhD, is an associate investigator at Versiti Blood Research Institute and a medical director at Versiti Comprehensive Center for Bleeding Disorders

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