The coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the health of researchers. Are you equipped to work with coronavirus at Griffith? And how is the situation at Fraunhofer ITEM?
MvI: At Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics we have access to state-of-the-art S3 facilities that enable us to undertake both cell-based and animal studies on coronavirus.
AB: In Hannover the virus work is done in close collaboration with TWINCORE and MHH. iCAIR®-related work is performed in their S3 labs just across the road. Thomas Pietschmann and Ulrich Kalinke from TWINCORE, a joint research institute of HZI and MHH, have recently joined iCAIR® and with their extraordinary immunological and virological expertise are a perfect fit for coronavirus research.
One approach that you are following is drug repurposing. Can you elucidate on that and what candidates will you use?
MvI: The Institute for Glycomics has access to over 3000 existing drugs that will be evaluated against COVID-19 using both primary and ex vivo, that is out-of-body, human respiratory cell-based models. This is referred to as drug repurposing, that is looking for existing drugs used in other diseases that would also be useful against COVID-19.
AB: In this project we will use substances that have been tested in different high-throughput screening approaches by Griffith University, HZI and Fraunhofer IME – Screening Port. The most promising candidates will be selected and further developed. Interestingly, this offers the possibility of an early validation of candidates, if they are selected in different screening procedures.
What makes a promising candidate? Currently there are already a lot of drug candidates mentioned.
MvI: A promising candidate is an existing drug that has good activity against COVID-19 and is safe.
AB: Yes, that would be perfect, just using a drug that is already on the market. The reality will look different: even if an existing drug is effective against SARS-CoV-2 the drug will have to be optimized for this special application. For example, it could be administered by inhalation to reach sufficient local concentrations in the airways, the main site of infection.
Many pharmaceutical companies are currently using their own molecule databanks to screen for drug candidates. What is your advantage in comparison to their approach?
MvI: Our major advantage is that we are using highly relevant human respiratory cell-based models in our screening of potential drugs. We also have an outstanding structure-informed approach that will enable further drug discovery.
Let us assume I am CEO of a big pharmaceutical company. What kind of support/contribution would you like to see from me? Or to put it in other words: How can I contribute to iCAIR® and what are you offering me?
MvI: To undertake a comprehensive screen of existing drugs and to use a structure-informed drug discovery approach is a costly exercise. We would be very much interested to join forces with pharmaceutical companies. Partnering with iCAIR® through significant financial support or in-kind contributions like performing expensive analyses such as transcriptomics would enable us to complete many human-years of work in 12-24 months.
With respect to the iCAIR® research, if you plan optimistically: What can we see in three/six months’ time from now?
MvI: In three to six months, I would expect to see enormous progress made in the identification of drug hits that could feed into the iCAIR® pipeline. By the end of six to nine months I would expect some of the first of these hits ready for extended preclinical studies to provide an appropriate data package that would enable human clinical trials to commence.