The medical research laboratory where Corrales’ John Alsobrook works gained national attention November 12 when the New York Times reported on its COVID-19 investigations. Headlined “New Type of Test on T-Cell Response May Better Discern Immunity to Virus,” the article explained how researchers at Adaptive Biotechnologies in Seattle used ongoing work on Lyme disease to re-focus on COVID-19.
The article did not mention former Village Councillor Alsobrook by name, but quoted the firm’s chief medical officer as saying “What we’re developing is essentially a way to look at that cellular part of immunity,” rather than whether COVID-19 antibodies are found in a person tested.
If the Adaptive Biotechnologies coronavirus test is authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it would be the first commercially available product to detect a body’s response to current or past exposure to COVID-19. According to the Times article, “Antibodies have dominated the conversation on immunity since the start of the pandemic, but scientists believe that T-cells may be just as important in preventing re-infection.”
Corrales Comment reported on Alsobrook’s work in its June 5, 2020 issue. He is director of an Adaptive Biotechnologies laboratory in Seattle, where he thinks the industry’s rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis will set the stage for how future pandemics are addressed. In a telephone interview with Corrales Comment May 30, Alsobrook said he has been very impressed with how rapidly the scientific community produced results to protect the public here and around the world against invasion by the novel coronavirus.
Anyone in the medical research community “who could switch gears to focus on COVID did, and has continued to do so. “This really speaks to why we have to maintain research budgets for the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation,” he said. “All of this basic research is there as a body of knowledge, and you never know what is going to happen that will make you go back to that knowledge.”
The Adaptive Biotechnologies lab at which he works continues to focus primarily on the human body’s response to cancer cells, particularly leukemia. The basic idea is to learn from the body’s adaptive immune system how to detect and battle invaders. But given the current pandemic, Alsobrook explained, the firm also is collaborating with Microsoft “to decode the immune system’s response to COVID-19” and develop the more sensitive T-cell diagnostic method.
A second strategy is collaborating with Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, to use Adaptive Technologies’ capabilities to “develop potential antibody therapies for COVID-19.”
His firm has committed to make its findings freely available to all researchers around the world through its “ImmuneCODE” project. Alsobrook explained that the term “adaptive” refers to a specialized type of white blood cell in the body which “learns” and adapt to new situations.
“Our immune systems rely on two kinds of cells: B-cells, which make antibodies to attack foreign organisms like the new coronavirus while it's in our bloodstream, and T-cells, which attack when the viruses have invaded and are inside our body’s cells.
“As mentioned briefly in the New York Times article, the preliminary results from a study performed by a team in Italy show Adaptive’s new T-cell test identified 97 percent of past confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections, which outperforms a currently FDA-authorized antibody test that only detected 77 percent,” Alsobrook explained in a November 15 email.
“This T-cell detection method can be an advantage because it appears that antibodies can wane over time, while virus-specific T-cells persist for six months and longer. Also, some people who become infected by this coronavirus may not develop antibodies at all if their body knocks down the infection rapidly with their T-cells.
“Importantly, this new test also detected prior infections in asymptomatic patients. The results were part of a study that tracked nearly the entire population of a single town in Italy.
“We expect the test to be launched later this year after Thanksgiving. The test requires a tube of blood, not the little drop shown in the picture that accompanied the Times article.”
He added a request. “My personal ask for everyone is to “Wear Your Masks!” Any one of us could be an unidentified asymptomatic person, spreading the virus until it reaches someone who is more vulnerable.” He thinks society should expect other pandemics in the future. “I’m certainly not an ‘end times’ or doomsday person, but I think we will see more of this kind of thing. I think it’s bound to happen, mainly because… it’s a small world. There is more and more physical mixing due to travel more than anything else.”
Alsobrook hopes science’s response to the pandemic will set a standard for future collaborations. “It is precedent-setting and really sets the stage for how we react when something like this happens in the future.
“So many places came out rapidly with diagnostic tests. although unfortunately there were some bad actors. Certainly big drug companies always have their bottom line in mind, so they rarely do things for free. But a vaccine is not a big money maker. Yet so many have turned their resources to that, saying they’re ready to turn out a billion doses —that’s pretty amazing.
“And so many in the research community have turned and collaborated, because usually there’s a spirit of friendly competition among academic scientists. It has become more of a collaborative spirit.
“I think that will prepare us for something like this in the future. We will look back on this time and say ‘Yeah, this is the right way to respond.’” The scientific and technical capabilities with ongoing improvements should allow this kind of rapid-response, he said. “All it takes is for us to decide that this is the thing we want to take care of. It takes some leadership to point us in that direction, but then it’s amazing what we can do.
“Look at what we’ve accomplished in a really short period of time… so what can we really get done.” After five years as a bio-medical research scientist at the Yale Medical School, John Alsobrook jumped into the burgeoning gene-focused bio-tech industry in 2000, getting more involved in the management of medical research projects. In 2005, he was hired as “director of discovery” for the Albuquerque-based Exagen Diagnostics firm. He moved his family into a home on Corrales’ Coronado Road in spring 2006.
Alsobrook was something of a science prodigy; he graduated from high school at 15, while taking university courses in symbolic logic, psychology and meteorology. In college, he was funded with a National Science Foundation fellowship to “design molecules to detoxify heavy metals.” He finished his degree in bio-chemistry in 1981 still not sure what field of science he wanted to pursue.
So he enrolled for another bachelor’s degree in physics at Cal State-Los Angeles. In 1985 he headed to Yale University for a doctorate bestowed in 1995. His dissertation was on genetic links to obsessive-compulsive disorders. While working for the Albuquerque medical research firm, he ran for a seat on the Village Council in 2008, serving two terms.
Funding medical research in a private corporation is risky, he pointed out. “There are probably 100 different companies that are working on a vaccine, or a diagnostic or a therapeutic. We’ll see which ideas come to the fore and which can be sustained and have the impact we’re looking for.’ That research activity was sparked largely by a ruling from the federal Food and Drug Administration which relaxed standards for rigorous testing before use on humans. “Now they’re saying you can start using them as long as you say you did the right stuff, and you show it to us later. So look at what happened, just last week,” he pointed out in May. “The FDA pulled 27 different tests off the market that were being used for COVID because the tests didn’t perform well, or the companies didn’t follow up with the data.”
Alsobrook said he has been somewhat amazed by response from the general public to the pandemic. “It’s amazing that people will find any reason to spark controversy… masks or not masks, you name it. “But people can have a lot of confidence in the science that’s being done. I’m seeing what lots of other scientists and companies are doing. But the wild card in any infectious disease outbreak is the social side. Someone is saying that requiring them to wear a mask abridges their freedom; it’s fine to think what you want to think about that independently. ‘I don’t want to wear a mask. Should I really? What is really the truth about a mask?’ “So then we get into these weird areas about what is truth and social media and fake news. But what I would say is that generally with scientists in this day and age, there’s no hidden agenda.
“It’s true that scientists, like everybody else, want to keep their jobs. But for scientists, it’s because they love what they do. To spend as much time as they do in training and learning how to do these things, they do it because it’s what they love to do. There’s a certain amount of faith and integrity that goes with that.
“So for me, it’s interesting how people decide what they want to question.”