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UBC-led study finds trial drug that appears to significantly block early stages of COVID-19

A study led by University of British Columbia researcher Dr. Josef Pettinger has uncovered information that could be vital in the fight against COVID-19.

Pettinger and his international team provided new insights into key aspects of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, its interactions on a cellular level and how the virus can infect blood vessels and kidneys.

Most importantly, they found a trial drug that effectively blocks the cellular door that SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect its hosts.

“There is hope for this horrible outbreak,” said Pettinger.

“We are hopeful our results have implications for the development of a novel drug for the treatment of this unprecedented outbreak.”

A protein on the surface of the cell membrane called ACE2, which was a key receptor for SARS, is now at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak as well.

According to a UBC blog about the study’s results, ACE2 is the “key receptor for the spike of glycoprotein found in SARS-CoV-2.”

The absence of a clinically proven antiviral therapy or treatment specifically targeting ACE2 on a molecular level has left healthcare professionals basically unarmed as they attempt to treat serious COVID-19 cases.

<who>Photo Credit: IMBA/Tibor Kulcsar</who>In cell cultures analyzed in the current study, hrsACE2 inhibited the coronavirus load by a factor of 1,000-5,000.

“Our new study provides direct evidence that a drug — called APN01 (human recombinant soluble angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 – hrsACE2) — soon to be tested in clinical trials by the European biotech company Apeiron Biologics, is useful as an antiviral therapy for COVID-19,” says Dr. Art Slutsky, a scientist out of the University of Toronto and a collaborator on the study.

In cell cultures analyzed in the current study, hrsACE2 inhibited the coronavirus load by a factor of 1,000-5,000.

Researchers were able to use engineered replicas of human blood vessels and kidneys to demonstrate that the virus can directly infect and duplicate inside these tissues.

It was vital information to learn regarding the disease’s development and it allowed them to see that clinical grade hrsACE2 reduces the SARS-CoV-2 induction in these engineered human tissues.

<who>Photo Credit: UBC</who>Dr. Josef Pettinger

Pettinger said that the virus causing COVID-19 is a close sibling to the first SARS virus.

“Our previous work has helped to rapidly identify ACE2 as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2, which explains a lot about the disease,” he explained.

“Now we know that a soluble form of ACE2 could be indeed a very rational therapy that specifically targets the gate the virus must take to infect us.”

This research was supported by the federal government through emergency funding focused on accelerating the development, testing and implementation of measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

The findings were published today in Cell.

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