Skip to content

Some Immune Cells Appear to ‘Know’ the Coronavirus, Even Though They’ve Never Met

August 20, 2020
Thousands of researchers across the globe are trying to find out how to stop the spread of novel coronavirus.

Having had the common cold appears to have programmed some people’s immune cells to recognize the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

That discovery — by an immunology team that includes a UC Merced alumnus — could change scientists’ understanding of the virus behind the current pandemic.

Lorenzo Quiambao, who graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology in 2016, is a research assistant at the La Jolla Institute of Immunology at UC San Diego. His team was working with cell samples taken from people in 2018, before COVID-19 was even known. By incubating them into the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s proteins, they found that up to half of the donor T cells exhibited a cross-reactive memory response, even though they had never experienced COVID.

“It could mean that exposures to other coronaviruses, such as the cold, give these people an immune advantage, or it could mean that when they get the novel coronavirus, they get sicker,” Quiambao said. “Or it might mean nothing. We’ll know much better in a month or two.”

Lorenzo Quiambao
Lorenzo Quiambao, Class of 2016, plans to become a physician and continue research.

Quiambao, who is from Modesto, has a very personal reason for wanting to research SARS-CoV-2 right now. His mother, a nurse practitioner, contracted COVID-19. She has recovered and is back to treating patients, but the experience was frightening, he said.

“She had mild symptoms — heart palpitations and trouble breathing — for a full 14 days,” he said. “It seemed to fade, get worse for a couple of days, and then go away.”

Quiambao majored in biology with emphases on immunology and microbiology and said his research position in La Jolla has been a dream job. He’s applying to medical schools now in hopes of becoming a practicing physician who also conducts research.

He and his teammates detailed their latest findings in a new article in Science.

Quiambao said the information would probably be more applicable to developing a vaccine than a treatment. He and the other researchers sequenced the virus’s genome and are working at top speed to see what else they can learn, such as how this cross-reactive memory response could affect asymptomatic people, or people who are repeatedly exposed, such as those in the health care industry.

“This coronavirus is so new, we really know very little about it,” he said. “But the world is on pause while everyone is trying hard to find the answers. Our whole institute is focused on it right now. We’ve been really fortunate to have NIH funding and generous donors who have given us all this equipment that allows us to do in weeks what would have taken months before.”