International group of researchers race to find treatment for COVID-19

March 27, 2020

Kevan Shokat and discuss Covid-19 research

Kevan Shokat (right), chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Nevan Krogan, director of the Quantitative Biosciences Institute, are working to find a treatment for novel coronavirus. Photo: ABC News

Kevan Shokat, UC Berkeley Professor of Chemstry and UCSF Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, and members of his lab have joined with other scientists around the world in a unique research project under the auspices of the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Coronavirus Research Group (QBI) spearheaded by UCSF Professor Nevan Krogan. The international team is testing an unusual new approach to identify potential antiviral drugs with proven efficacy to treat SARS-Cov-2 infections. Given the world crisis, the strategy of testing known/approved drugs could help reduce the numbers of deaths in the near term while the world health community battles the epidemic.

Shokat's lab reviewed 20,000 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for signs that they may interact with the proteins on the map created by members of his lab. Nearly 70 drugs and experimental compounds were found to be potenially effective in treating the coronavirus.

Some of the medications are already being used to treat other diseases, and repurposing them to treat Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, may be faster than trying to invent a new antiviral from scratch, the scientists have said.

The list of drug candidates appeared in a study posted to the science prepublication web bioRxiv on March 22, 2020. The research has been submitted to the Journal Nature for future publication.

An outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19 respiratory disease, has infected over 290,000 people since the end of 2019, killed over 12,000, and caused worldwide social and economic disruption. There are currently no antiviral drugs with proven efficacy nor are there vaccines for its prevention. Unfortunately, the scientific community has little knowledge of the molecular details of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

To illuminate this, we cloned, tagged and expressed 26 of the 29 viral proteins in human cells and identified the human proteins physically associated with each using affinity-purification mass spectrometry (AP-MS), which identified 332 high confidence SARS-CoV-2-human protein-protein interactions (PPIs). Among these, we identify 66 druggable human proteins or host factors targeted by 69 existing FDA-approved drugs, drugs in clinical trials and/or preclinical compounds, that we are currently evaluating for efficacy in live SARS-CoV-2 infection assays.

QBI is made up of twenty-two leading research laboratories internationally, involving hundreds of scientists who have pooled their expertise in biochemistry, virology, structural, computational, chemical and systems biology to understand how the virus hijacks human cells for its own replication. 

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