Like everyone else in the world, Ben Fulton had his life upended by the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic last winter. But while many of us canceled trips and retreated indoors to hack away at our Netflix queues, he started pulling long hours at the office. That’s because Fulton is a virus expert by training, and his employer, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, is trying to make a treatment for Covid-19.
Regeneron has made its name crafting antibody medicines for a host of human diseases, and the SARS-CoV-2 crisis presented a chance to put its expertise to use. But before you can find antibodies to an infectious agent, you have to understand precisely how it works. That’s where Fulton and his team of virologists came in.
Over a series of long nights and unobserved weekends, Fulton’s group pieced together the emerging details about SARS-CoV-2 to engineer a harmless knockoff virus, one that had all of the deadly pathogen’s key characteristics minus the deadly part. Then they injected that virus into mice engineered to have human immune systems, a process that generated thousands of antibodies. To filter out only the most potent ones, Regeneron turned again to Fulton’s viral expertise, testing each antibody against his skunkworks coronavirus and isolating the most powerful products those mice could muster
The result, described in a pair of Science papers, is REGN-COV2, an antibody cocktail treatment now in clinical trials. The therapy also got a primetime endorsement from President Trump, who received it as part of his treatment for Covid-19 in October, making for a “surreal” experience for Fulton.
“There’s no tree of life for viruses,” Fulton said. “It’s a giant black box, and that’s why i’m attracted to this field.”
“Lots of people were texting me like, ‘Is this you? Is this you?’” Fulton said with a laugh. “And it’s like, ‘Yes, this is us.’”
REGN-COV2’s progression out of the lab means Fulton can return to what brought him to Regeneron in the first place: engineering viruses to fight cancer. Pre-pandemic, Fulton spent his days designing viruses that could either kill tumors or galvanize the immune system to do the same. The work invites him to indulge in the mysteries that drew him to science in the first place: Viruses are millions of years old, and yet they continue to surprise humanity’s brightest minds.
“There’s no tree of life for viruses,” Fulton said. “It’s a giant black box, and that’s why I’m attracted to this field.”
— Damian Garde