Serological Sciences Network to bolster understanding of COVID-19 immune response

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is leveraging the serological sciences expertise of the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL) to address the COVID-19 pandemic through a new effort launched last month. 

The Serological Sciences Network, or SeroNet, is a collaboration across 25 biomedical research institutions to enhance understanding of the immune response to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. The nationwide network is headquartered at and managed by FNL’s Serology Laboratory. 

Leading the initiative 

The FNL Serology Laboratory is an expansion of the existing HPV Serology Laboratory, which has partnered with the Food and Drug Administration since March to evaluate the sensitivity and specificity of 53 COVID-19 antibody tests intended for use by the public. 

The test validation effort will continue, as Serology Laboratory and FNL SeroNet lead Ligia Pinto, Ph.D. and team share expertise, establish standards and facilitate SeroNet goals. 

The Serology Laboratory will also manage the SeroNet Coordinating Center, facilitating communication and fostering collaboration across the network.  

Laboratories working together 

SeroNet is comprised of researchers and laboratories across the United States.  

A graphic listing names of research institutions involved in SeroNetNCI received an emergency appropriation of $306 million from Congress in April to develop, validate, and implement serological testing and associated technologies. More than half of the funding is devoted to SeroNet, a major component of NCI’s response to COVID-19. 

In June, NCI released a request for applications and a request for proposals to fulfill two elements of the network: Serological Sciences Centers of Excellence and Research Projects in SARS-CoV-2 Serological Sciences. 

The eight awarded SeroNet Centers of Excellence are institutions conducting research projects focused on characterizing immune responses to COVID-19, disease progression, and protection from infection. 

The 13 awarded SeroNet Research Projects are individuals or teams at institutions conducting research on basic and applied serological research. 

FNL also awarded four subcontracts to develop serological assays to test for coronavirus antibodies and conduct serosurveillance studies to research institutions designated as SeroNet Capacity Building Centers. Each center will have the capacity to test at least 5,000 samples per week. 

Data from all network components will be publicly accessible in a database, which is under development. 

Answering pressing questions 

SeroNet’s mission is to better understand the immune response to COVID-19, to develop assays to test for coronavirus antibodies, and to share findings from its myriad studies globally.  

SeroNet aims to address the many unknowns relating to COVID-19, including: 

  • Whether being antibody positive is associated with protection against reinfection. 

  • What antibody levels may be associated with protection. 

  • How long protection will last. 

  • Why some people who are exposed to COVID-19 get sick while others don’t, and why people’s symptoms vary in severity. 

“In partnership with the NCI, the Frederick National Laboratory has moved rapidly to bring together scientists from 25 of the nation’s top biomedical research institutions to tackle these questions," Pinto said. “Working together as a network will facilitate idea generation and enable us to share what we discover with the community faster than if each institution were working alone.” 

While the SeroNet teams are primarily focused on addressing the current pandemic needs, Pinto said the hope is to use data and research generated through SeroNet for a broader understanding of serology with other diseases.  

SeroNet will work closely with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and other government agencies to share its research as it relates to vaccine development and antibody testing implementation.