How SARS Research is Helping Scientists Explore Treatment for Coronavirus

An international team of doctors and researchers at the Chicago-based Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases has discovered that a protein in the COVID-19 could be treated with drugs that had been in development for SARS.

Health officials announced Thursday a fifth person in Illinois had tested positive for COVID-19. There have so far been 12 deaths reported nationwide. (For a look at the ever-changing number of global infections and deaths, visit this dashboard managed by Johns Hopkins.)

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We asked the center’s co-director Karla Satchell, Ph.D., professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, to tell us more about this discovery.

Can you explain the work you’re doing in layman’s terms?

So I’m the director of a large international center and there are about 40 different people and eight different institutions that contribute to the center. And the goal that the center has currently is to look at the components of this new virus. If you look at a picture of the particle, you can know that there are components that make up that particle in that picture.

And we do that at super high resolution using the synchrotron at Argonne National Lab. So we purify that protein and we just blast it with X-rays and generate a picture of what that protein looks like and use a lot of computation to turn a picture that’s lots of little spots into beautiful models. We’re planning to do this with about 15 proteins of this new virus. We’ve solved the first protein. This protein is a known protein from SARS as being a place where you could use that information, use a lot of computation to design a chemical that would bind to that protein to make it no longer work.

It seems that some of the drugs that were in development for SARS could be effective with COVID-19. Is that right?

Yes. And so that is what we’re hoping. The first step is to just get the pictures with nothing bound. Now we’re trying to get pictures of those bound to chemicals that were solved for SARS. They’re similar enough that we think the drugs that worked for SARS may work for this one protein and we’re trying to do that same information for 15 others that the virus makes.

Were those drugs for SARS approved by the Food and Drug Administration?

Oh, no, they were never put into development. So the problem with the research on SARS is by the time the research community had made progress, SARS had gone away and there was no need for those drugs to be developed. So what you see as you look in journal articles is you see progress being made, people publishing that progress and then it just stops and nothing then is developed. It has to actually work in a clinical setting. And to my knowledge, nothing was taken from that early stage to the next stage of what we call preclinical development.

So in those preclinical development drugs, are we talking about something that’s a treatment? A preventative? A cure?

The idea is that these should be nicely developed as treatments. So a vaccine is preventative. So those are things that you would treat normal, healthy people with so that they never get the virus. These would be drugs that (you would use) if somebody had the virus and you wanted to help them get better faster.

As you’re using these incredible tools to find these proteins, are you concerned that it will mutate?

That is one of the concerns that we have. Once a drug is deployed, mutations are always in the works. But what we’re looking at now, too, is even as it’s spreading globally, it’s not changing very much. Maybe one or two amino acids changing. So it’s staying pretty much unchanged as it’s spreading. But we are looking now at those little bits of mutations that are occurring and saying, could this have an impact? But evolution occurs with selective pressure. Right now there’s no selective pressure, but once a drug comes on board, yes there could be selection.

How quickly do you think drugs could be made available?

It matters whether, for example, is there a drug that is already discovered, already FDA approved that could be employed to at least have some help. That could be only limited by manufacturing capacity, right? So how fast could the person who makes that drug be able to make it? And that could be very fast, a matter of perhaps a few months, or even shorter than that if they were preparing a lot of that drug all along.

There is one drug that treats hepatitis C virus that had some efficacy against MERS and they are looking at that. There’s an ongoing clinical trial in Nebraska right now to ask if that is effective. If that’s the case, that’s already an FDA-approved drug and the drugmaker can actually ramp up that production. If it has to be completely new, I think we’re looking at a matter of many months, you know, 18 months, two years.

The good news is, is that hopefully something that was known from SARS will impact our knowledge with regards to this new coronavirus. So the entire basic science research can be skipped. We already know which proteins can be targeted and what kinds of compounds can be used. And so that next stage of drug development should hopefully go much faster.

Would a drug targeting COVID-19 be like Tamiflu in that it would shorten the length and the severity of the illness?

Oh, yes. Yes. That would be the goal. So Tamiflu is a drug that targets a specific enzyme in the flu virus. We’re trying to target specific enzymes in the coronavirus. So the concept is identical.

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