Regina-born researcher discovers promising treatment for COVID-19

·3 min read

A Regina-born researcher is on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19 in San Francisco.

Nevan Krogan is the director of Quantitative Biosciences Institute at the University of California in San Francisco.

His team's latest findings about a treatment for COVID-19 were published Monday in the journal Science.

Krogan told CBC's The Morning Edition that his team has been working on SARS-COV-2 for almost a year, but is taking a different approach than other researchers.

He and his colleagues have been trying to understand which human genes and proteins the virus needs to infect people.

"A lot of people are trying to target through vaccines and antibody treatments and drugs, the viral proteins," he said. "We're trying to attack the human proteins that the virus needs."

The team has been systematically identifying these human proteins the virus needs, then cross-referencing them with drugs known to target them, he said.

"The virus cannot live by itself. It needs our cells, our genes, our proteins to live and replicate and infect us."

These drugs were developed for other diseases, like cancer, but Krogan's team has been screening them to see if they have antiviral effects. Collaborators in San Francisco, New York and Paris have screened "thousands and thousands" of drugs, Krogan said.

QBI, UCSF
QBI, UCSF

They used an approach called protein-protein interaction mapping to identify 332 human proteins that were physically connected to at least one of the 30 SARS-COV-2 proteins.

About 60 of those human proteins have at least one drug targeting them, he said.

They're particularly excited about an anti-cancer drug called aplidin.

Krogan said aplidin has shown to be "incredibly potent" on both older and newer COVID variants.

"[Aplidin] is by far — by far — the most potent," he said. "It's about 30 to 100 times more potent than remdesivir, at least in the laboratory setting in human cells and in a couple of different mice models that we have."

The chemical that makes the drug was extracted from a sea squirt that lives exclusively off the coast of Spain, he said.

The team has been working with the Spanish company PharmaMar that discovered the chemical several years ago, he said.

PharmaMar
PharmaMar

It just finished a phase two clinical trial and a phase three clinical trial that will have a double blind study with a placebo is set to start soon.

"We hope that this will be another weapon in the arsenal against COVID very soon," Krogan said.

Aplidin is classified as an antiviral drug, which works best at the beginning of the infection, he said.

Once people are in the late stages of the disease and on respirators, antivirals aren't much use to them. That's when steroids like dexamethasone are useful, because they decreases inflammation.

A silver lining to the pandemic

Working through the pandemic has been a challenge, but Krogan says there's a silver lining.

"When the scientific community comes together, we can move incredibly fast," he said. "This has been fantastic to see all the scientists working together in a really unprecedented way."

He'd like to see the scientific community keep working this way to combat the next pandemic and to work on diseases like breast cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"I think that the pandemic has shown us how to do this. So I think longer term, in that regard, the pandemic has been a positive thing for research and the medical community."