A double antibody to defeat Zika virus


Bellinzona, Switzerland, and Singapore, September 21, 2017. The prestigious scientific journal Cell today published a study resulting from a collaboration between the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) affiliated to Università della Svizzera Italiana, Humabs Biomed SA and the Duke National University of Singapore. The researchers developed an innovative “double” antibody that protects from Zika virus infection.

Zika, present in 84 nations worldwide, has a remarkable ability to change its structure (mutate) to escape the response of the immune system. The problem was confronted and solved joining together, in a single molecule, two antibodies that block two different parts of the virus at the same time. Pre-clinical studies show that the “double” antibody, “bispecific” in technical terms, efficiently protects against Zika and prevents the virus mutation. The antibody has properties that make it an ideal therapeutic candidate.

Luca Varani,Ph.D, group leader at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine and co-author of the study said: ”Our double antibody prevents Zika from evading the immune system, a problem that is difficult to solve with a single antibody. We characterized the interaction between virus and antibody at different levels, spanning from atomic interactions to the molecular and cellular level. A combination of computational and experimental techniques was instrumental to study the atomic interactions between Zika virus and antibody”. The IRB is one of the rare laboratories where high resolution magnetic resonance is used to characterize antibodies.

According to Davide Corti, Ph.D, co-author of the study and Chief Scientific Officer of Humabs Biomed SA, a subsidiary of Vir Biotechnology Inc.: ”Zika virus infection has turned into a public health threat, particularly due to its association with congenital birth defects. Vaccine development may encounter some difficulties and it is important to develop alternative therapeutic approaches. The pre-clinical data we published show good efficacy; we intend to explore alternative delivery mechanisms for the antibody that could make it more cost effective and thus more accessible to the parts of the world most in need for cures for this disease”.

Associate Professor Shee Mei Lok from Duke-NUS added: “The FIT-1 antibody has immense potential to be developed as a therapeutic for the treatment and prevention of Zika virus infection in adults and pregnant women. Hopefully, clinical trials can be accelerated so that the FIT-1 antibody may be used in future outbreaks, as well as to tackle emergency cases of Zika infection in pregnant women.”

“We are very proud of this scientific result, obtained also with the financial contribution from the cantonal office of economic development, part of the program for support of innovation.” Said Filippo Riva, General Director of Humabs Biomed.


About Zika Virus

Zika belongs to the flavivirus class, which includes also Dengue and West Nile virus. Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes and has reached large parts of the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including parts of the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared in early 2016 a state of Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and predicted that 3-4 million people would become infected annually, 1.5 million of these in Brazil alone. While the symptoms of Zika virus infection can be absent or generally mild, the virus appears to invade the neural tissue of the fetus, leading to microcephaly and other neural defects in offspring in up to 13% of cases. The virus can also be spread by bodily fluids, including semen, and so can also be sexually transmitted. While attempts have been made to reduce the spread of the virus by spraying with insecticides, there are currently no vaccines or treatments against Zika, and WHO has declared a need for a long-term approach to combatting this infection. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop therapies to treat this rapidly spreading disease.


Caption for the image:

Researchers have developed an antibody (in red) that binds to Zika Virus (in blue) preventing it from escaping the immune system thus blocking the infection.




The Institute for Research in Biomedicine

Founded in 2000 is affiliated to the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI). Financed by private and public institutions and by competitive grants, the IRB conducts basic research studies with particular emphasis on the mechanisms of defense against pathogens. With more than 530 publications in leading scientific journals, the IRB has gained an international reputation as a center of excellence in biomedical research.


Humabs BioMed

Humabs BioMed, a biotechnology company based in Bellinzona, Switzerland, a subsidiary of Vir Biotechnology, Inc., is focused on discovering and developing fully human monoclonal antibodies to treat serious infections. Humabs BioMed was incubated in the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), which is located at Bellinzona and affiliated with the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI). Humabs’ proprietary discovery technology – CellClone – platforms enable the isolation of antibodies that have passed natural selection by the human immune system in response to disease and can generally be developed rapidly without extensive lead optimization. Humabs has a portfolio of more than a dozen immunotherapy product candidates. Humabs is internally developing antibodies directed against hepatitis B virus and respiratory syncytial virus and metapneumovirus (RSV/MPV). These programs are currently in preclinical development.  Humabs is also developing a portfolio of immunotherapies against major public health threats, including MERS-CoV, Dengue, Rabies and Zika viruses.

Vir Biotechnology, Inc., was launched in 2016 to develop cures, treatments, and preventions for some of the world’s most challenging infectious diseases for which solutions are non-existent or inadequate. Vir seeks to take a new approach, using breakthroughs in immune programming to manipulate pathogen-host interactions. The company will take a multi-program, multi-platform approach to applying these breakthroughs, guided by rigorous science and driven by medical need. Vir is headquartered in San Francisco, California.


The Duke-NUS Medical School
(Duke-NUS) was established in 2005 as a strategic collaboration between the Duke University School of Medicine, located in North Carolina, USA, and the National University of Singapore (NUS). Duke-NUS offers a graduate-entry, 4-year MD (Doctor of Medicine) training program based on the unique Duke model of education, with one year dedicated to independent study and research projects of a basic science or clinical nature. Duke-NUS also offers MD/Ph.D and Ph.D programmes. Duke-NUS has five Signature Research Programs: Cancer and Stem Cell Biology, Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders, and Health Services and Systems Research.

Duke-NUS and SingHealth have established a strategic partnership in academic medicine that will guide and promote the future of medicine, tapping on and combining the collective strengths of SingHealth's clinical expertise and Duke-NUS' biomedical sciences research and medical education capabilities


Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB)

Dr. Luca Varani

Tel: +41 91 820 03 21



Humabs BioMed SA

Dr. Davide Corti, CSO

Tel. +41 91 825 63 80



Duke-NUS Media Contact

Ong Yen May

Tel: +65 6601 2057