Fighting COVID-19 from Within: Cameron Statton ’16 Studies the Body’s Immune Response to the Coronavirus

In our new series, “Confidence, Courage, Hope,” we profile exceptional Scripps students, alumnae, faculty, and staff who are making a difference–from the local to the global–at the front lines of COVID-19. As we face these unprecedented challenges, the Scripps College community comes together for inspiration and solidarity in this unique moment in history.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in many US states, scientists the world over are feverishly searching for new ways to test, track, and treat patients with COVID-19. Cameron Statton ’16 is among those at the vanguard of these developing technologies, serving as the program manager for the Antigen Map Project within Microsoft Health NExT.

The Antigen Map Project is an ongoing partnership between Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft, with the aim of diagnosing, preventing, and possibly even treating disease by reading individuals’ cellular immune response.

“Your immune system is an amazing diagnostic tool, detecting and fighting nearly all diseases using a similar mechanism. Essentially, your immune system tells a story about the things your body is fighting, past and present. The key is being able to translate that story into something we can actually understand and use,” explains Statton. “COVID-19 fits naturally into this project, as it is another infection that your body’s immune system reacts to. As we collect samples from people actively fighting this disease, we can analyze the immune response and develop models to provide improved diagnostics, predict outcomes, and inform treatment.”

Currently, two types of testing dominate COVID-19 diagnostics. The first is the Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which tries to directly detect viral genetic material. This is the type of test you would likely be administered if you reported symptoms of COVID-19 at a hospital. The second is a serology test, which measures the presence or absence of antibodies in the blood. Yet both tests have their limitations.

“PCR tests are typically very precise, but they can miss cases if swabs aren’t done correctly or if viral genetic material is at very low abundance,” says Statton. “And while antibodies are cheap and fast to measure, antibodies can take a while to build up in your body, then persist for many months after the infection has cleared, making this test ineffective for diagnosing active infection and creating a risk for a high number of false negatives if taken too early. There may also be false positives due to other types of coronaviruses with similar antibodies.”

To fill this gap in testing reliability, Statton and her team are aiming to develop a third type of test: They are looking at the T-cells in the immune system, one of the body’s earliest and fastest defenses, which allows for earlier and more accurate detection. “There is evidence that the strength and nature of the T-cell response may determine how severe a person’s symptoms will be,” she says. “So, we are hopeful that our test may also be able to provide information on how different people are responding to the virus, including severity, risk, and immunity, allowing for more optimized treatment.”

If they can predict the severity of disease, it will allow for better management of healthcare resources. In addition to the diagnostic potential, the ability to even partially read the immune response by mapping T-cell receptors to the antigens they target could open new doors for vaccine development and novel therapeutics. The researchers are currently enrolling those affected by COVID-19 into a clinical trial to learn more about immune responses to the virus.

Statton was part of the 3/2 engineering combined program with Columbia University, graduating with a BA in engineering from Scripps College in three years and a BS in biomedical engineering from Columbia University with a focus in biomechanics after another two. Her responsibilities with the Antigen Map Project include managing workstreams spanning from software to modeling to computational biology, as well as leading a number of strategy, market, and user-research efforts, and overseeing the program management workflow.

“As a program manager, it is important that I foster communication and collaboration between the scientists/engineers and corporate teams, such as legal, compliance, clinical, and commercial, to push our project forward. When trying to tackle big problems like COVID-19, it is important to have an interdisciplinary approach spanning all sorts of fields, like machine learning, immunology, cell biology, engineering, marketing, and more,” she says. “Scripps provided me the opportunity to get a broad liberal arts education, which has helped me have a more all-encompassing approach to my work and to view problems from other perspectives.”

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