MORRISTOWN — Earlier this year, Atlantic Health System launched  a series of clinical trials with the goal of identifying how the body detects the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

One study involving the technology of Massachusetts-based TScan Therapeutics, and the participation of roughly 50 volunteers, has produced results that doctors believe are significant enough to prepare for publication in medical journals.

"This was just a detection trial — can we detect what parts of the virus our immune system was making a memory of?" Dr. Eric Whitman, medical director of Atlantic Health's Cancer Care Network, said. "What is it reacting to? What is it making a memory of, technically? So they're able to analyze the blood of people who have had COVID and have gotten better."

Whitman said much of the focus so far in COVID-19 treatment has been on the antibodies produced by the body's B cells, which provide immunity to the disease, though it's still not known for how long.

But by looking instead at T cells, which are "memory" cells that attack a virus without the help of antibodies, there was an "aha!" moment: The study seemed to indicate that different immune systems recognize different parts of the virus, which could be crucial in specifying what is needed in future vaccine trials, diagnostic tests and treatments.

"So it's not random, what part of the virus our immune system recognizes. It's a consistent part of the virus, or parts, and this has very important implications, perhaps," Whitman said.

The results from the TScan study may eventually be used in expanded trials encompassing a much larger number of test subjects.

And although Whitman emphasized he is a cancer physician, not an infectious disease or pulmonary or critical care specialist, he said he recognized early on in the pandemic the importance of committing his staff to concentrating their efforts on ways to identify, manage, and eventually defeat COVID-19.

"In my career, I've never seen so much intense and inspired science directed at a single disease, and that makes me very hopeful for the future," he said.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email

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