Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies are studying how the human immune system reacts to the coronavirus

Key Points
  • Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies are spearheading an effort to understand how the human immune system responds to the virus, and why some people become so critically ill while others are asymptomatic. 
  • The companies are collecting anonymous blood samples from people who have been diagnosed with the disease and have subsequently recovered. 
  • The research findings will be shared via an open access data-set so others can leverage it so develop better treatments for Covid-19. 
Peter Lee from Microsoft Health

Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies are working together to study how the human immune system responds to the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

By understanding the immune signature, meaning how humans are responding to the disease, the companies hope to speed the process of developing a more accurate diagnostic test and treatment for COVID-19.

"Most efforts we're seeing so far are focused on the biology of the virus," said Adaptive Biotechnologies CEO Chad Robins by phone. "Now we're turning our focus on COVID-19 and adding a new dimension, which is the immune response." 

Adaptive has a broad mission of learning how the human immune system reacts to a library of illness, and eventually developing a kind of "immune checkup" for patients to get screened for infectious disease, cancer and autoimmune problems once or twice a year.  But that could be as far as a decade down the road. 

For now, it is focusing its attentions on COVID-19, which the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic. The disease is continuing its spread across the globe, and more than 240,000 cases have now been reported. 

Starting next month, Adaptive said it will kick off a virtual clinical study by collecting de-identified blood samples from people who have been diagnosed with or recovered from COVID-19. DNA sequencing machines from Illumina will be used to sequence the immune cell receptors. All of the data collected around the immune response signature will be uploaded to an open data access portal for researchers to use.

Microsoft will provide its cloud and machine learning technology to help make sense of the samples. Microsoft research chief Peter Lee said the companies have been working together for a few years on using their technology to link all of T-cell receptors to the antigens that they are targeted to attack, in an effort to better understand the human immune system. 

Providence, a health system with more than 50 hospitals, is also participating in the project. It has already treated patients with the disease in the Seattle area, and has agreed to step up as a collaborator on the clinical trial. Labcorp, another partner, is offering up its mobile phlebotomy service to help make it easier to collect the blood samples. 

One reason scientists are so concerned about COVID-19 is that humans don't yet have any natural immunity to it. No immune system has seen it since the first case, which is believed to be in November. That makes it more contagious than say, the seasonal flu.

Scientists also don't understand why some people experience mild symptoms that they chalk up to a cold while others get a severe immune system reaction that does more damage than the virus itself and puts them in critical care. 

Both Lee and Robins are hoping that Microsoft and Adaptive will come up with a new kind of diagnostic test down the road. If it works, they suspect the process would still involve collecting blood at home and mailing the results into a lab.

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