$200K grant for LU researchers seeking chemical compound to shut down COVID-19

·3 min read

Researchers at Laurentian University in Sudbury are working to find a chemical compound that can help stop the protein that allows the COVID-19 coronavirus to replicate itself.

The team, headed by Professor Stefan Siemann of LU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The money will allow for the purchase of specialized pieces of equipment; a fluorometer and a microplate reader system, said a news release from the university. Dr. Siemann said the new equipment is state-of-the-art.

Siemann is already part of a global network of experts using 3-D imaging technology to find potential weaknesses in viral cell structure. Siemann said he was thinking about the project last winter when the pandemic hit hard.

"Back in March all classes were suspended at Laurentian and the colleges. So we were stuck at home and did the teaching from there. That gave me some time to do a few other things," he recalled.

It was in April that Siemann was invited to contribute to the Moonshot Project, involving scientists from around the world in a bid to stop the coronavirus from replicating.

Siemann said part of his work involves using virtual reality to explore the make up of certain proteins. One of those is a protein called the Mpro.

"Mpro is the main protease, that's what it's called," said Siemann. "So it's not a vaccine but it's actually drug molecules we are trying to develop."

Siemann said the Mpro is what has to be shut down.

"And so then I thought well there is the coronavirus, and the coronavirus has one very important protein that it uses for viral replication. It is one of the prime drug targets," he said referring to the Mpro.

As summer arrived, Siemann said the research was allowed to return to campus and return to work in their laboratories. That's when it was decided to apply for the CFI funding. He said Laurentian is working in collaboration with the University of Waterloo, which provides the chemical compounds that LU researchers will be screening in their search for the compound that can shut down the Mpro.

Siemann said the acquisition of the new equipment will allow the team to analyze hundreds of samples at the same time. He said the new equipment is a huge leap of technology.

Siemann said he is feeling good about the project, which will involve the efforts of a PhD student, a masters student and a few undergrads.

"I think we are pretty optimistic. I am pretty sure we are going to find something. We are looking at it from different angles. It is something that will require time," he said.

Siemann that regardless of the amount of time required to find new information in identifying compounds to shut down the Mpro, the knowledge gained will be significant in fighting future virus-caused illnesses. He made reference to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003, the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012 and the most recent coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Siemann said medical science cannot rule out the possibility that another viral illness will come along at some point in the future.

Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com