Aussie researchers repurpose SARS treatment to fight COVID-19

In the race to find a cure for COVID-19, Australian researchers have discovered that a compound originally designed to fight SARS can also stop COVID-19 growth in the laboratory.

Prof. David Komander, who co-leads a team from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, told Xinhua on Monday that their focus on a particular protein in the virus makes their research different from other drug repurposing around the world.

“Our example was different insomuch that we focused repurposing on a single protein from the virus that we identified as an Achilles heel of the virus,” Komander said.

The protein, called PLpro, can be found in all coronaviruses, including those that cause COVID-19 and SARS, allowing them to hijack human cells and disable their anti-viral defenses.

PLpro belongs to a family of proteins called “deubiquitinases”, which Komander and his team have been studying for the past 15 years, and he is now hopeful it could lead to a cure not just for COVID-19, but for other emerging coronaviruses too.

“Importantly, drugs that are able to inactivate PLpro may be useful not just for COVID-19 but may also work against other coronavirus diseases, as they emerge in the future,” he said.

After identifying the weakness of the viruses, a program to find the right candidate drugs to block PLpro was quickly initiated, although Komander said the search was not easy.

“We scanned thousands of currently listed drugs, as well as thousands of drug-like compounds, to see if they were effective in blocking the SARS-CoV-2 PLpro,” he said.

“While existing drugs were not effective in blocking PLpro, we discovered that compounds developed in the last decade against SARS, could prevent the growth of SARS-CoV-2 in pre-clinical testing in the laboratory.”

Komander told Xinhua that the next step is to turn the compound into a practical drug to treat COVID-19, a process which could take years.

“We now need to develop the compounds into medicines, and make sure they are safe for patients,” Komander said.