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Drawing closer to COVID-19 treatment breakthroughs

As the second wave of COVID-19 surges and the world waits to be vaccinated, the need to develop new, life-saving treatment methods and drug therapies remains as urgent as ever.

December 18, 2020

Through unprecedented local and global collaboration, UBC Faculty of Medicine researchers are applying their strengths in therapeutic development by combining skills across disciplines, establishing innovative partnerships and accelerating discoveries to combat COVID-19.

UBC researchers are now drawing closer to treatment breakthroughs that will improve care for patients affected by the novel coronavirus at various stages of disease progression.

Enzymes as decoys for the virus

Dr. Josef Penninger, UBC professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics (pictured above), is lead investigator of an international clinical trial of ACE2 enzymes, the critical entry receptor for SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

“Basically, when any virus, including a coronavirus, enters our body, it must enter cells through a specific receptor—SARS-CoV-2 needs the entry gate ACE2,” says Dr. Penninger. “But when we intravenously introduce more ACE2 into the body, the ACE2 enzymes look like receptor cells and essentially act as decoys for the virus. Therefore, the virus cannot find the ‘real’ gate anymore. We have already shown that this approach works by significantly reducing this novel coronavirus’ infection rate.”

“Even when we have a vaccine, we’ll still need therapy and treatment for people who are already sick.” —Dr. Josef Penninger

The trial is set up to allow for rapid approval of the drug, depending on the outcome and clinical benefits. After the last patient is recruited, the research team can analyze the data and produce conclusions, hopefully early next year.

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  • “Our team is working to provide drug therapy that could save lives of COVID-19 patients, and complement vaccine treatments.”

    Dr. Artem Cherkasov

If you would like to support COVID-19 research at UBC, donate online now. 

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Antibodies to prevent and neutralize virus

A research team led by Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, UBC professor and Gobind Khorana Canada Excellence Research Chair in Precision Cancer Drug Design, is using a powerful imaging technique known as cryo-electron microscopy to take pictures at near-atomic resolution to see how various antibody treatments bind to the novel coronavirus. Their hope is to identify critical differences between antibodies that bind and block viral infection, and those that bind but are unable to block infection, providing powerful blueprints for drug and vaccine design. Already, they have helped to uncover how one antibody-based drug, known as Ab8, prevents and neutralizes the virus. “Our expectation is that we will be able to use the structural information we derive about the precise footprints of antibody binding to develop more effective ways to stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks,” says Dr. Subramaniam. “This particular finding has potential implications for both the prevention and treatment of COVID-19.”

Anti-viral drugs to eliminate the virus

From artificial intelligence to x-ray crystallography, Dr. Artem Cherkasov and Dr. Natalie Strynadka, both UBC professors, are also employing cutting-edge techniques in their quest to find an anti-viral drug to treat COVID-19. When COVID-19 emerged, they searched vast chemical libraries to find the basis for potential new medicines. Using their newly developed artificial intelligence algorithm, they scanned 1.3 billion compounds in a week – something that once would have taken several years – to find 1,000 compounds that held promise, which they narrowed down to 100 for testing on the virus in the lab. Using advanced biophysical techniques, including x-ray crystallography and single particle electron microscopy, they capture atomic resolution pictures of the proteins this coronavirus relies on to produce and cause COVID-19. These atomic structures are like blueprints they use to understand how the critical protein is built, how it works and how their designed drug compounds can specifically bind and block its action to prevent COVID-19.

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  • “Although developing new drugs takes time, government has stepped up with unprecedented opportunities for rapid research funding targeting COVID-19. Academic and industry partners, both nationally and internationally, are also working together in an unprecedented way, with a common goal.”

    Dr. Natalie Strynadka

When COVID-19 emerged, the UBC Faculty of Medicine mobilized a rapid response to the outbreak, embarking on a new age of collaborative research-based health care.

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