Scientists Identify Molecule That Can Kill COVID With ‘Hugs’ — but There’s a Catch

Scientists have identified a molecule just love SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It loves it so much that it “hugs” it, almost to death – so tightly bound to the virus that the virus cannot infect our cells.

The discovery of this molecule, the so-called “HR2 peptide”, was a big deal. It could form the basis of a new antiviral drug. One that will not only work on current variations of new corona virusbut Future variations, as well.

But there’s a problem. It’s one thing to identify a molecule in an academic study. That’s another way to make a potion based on that molecule. “Academia is not suitable for commercialization of a compound,” said Axel Brunger, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland and one of the study’s authors.

The HR2 peptide is promising, but far from bringing us a new therapy. And resources for new COVID drugs are dwindling.

The idea of ​​deploying a peptide, which is a sequence of amino acids, to bind to a coronavirus is not new. Previous studies have scrutinized various peptides for use in COVID therapies, but with average results.

The genius of the new study, which involved researchers from Harvard, Stanford, the University of Helsinki and others, was in the design of the peptide. Essentially, the team engineered the peptide to extend its acid chain. “This peptide is a slightly longer version,” explains Brunger.

That seems like a little trick. Adding a few “radicals” to the amino acid sequence makes this peptide hundreds of times more effective as a virus suppressant than shorter peptides. “Our results suggest that a simple peptide with the right sequence can be an effective and cost-effective treatment,” the team wrote in their peer-reviewed study. me. appear online inside Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday.

It works like this: the SARS-CoV-2 virus envelope peptide, which surrounds the mutated proteins that pathogens use to attach to and infect our cells. Specifically, the amino acid sequence interferes with the infectious phase, where the virus moves across our cell membranes.

The scientists tested this peptide on all major forms of the new coronavirus – Delta, Omicron, various Omicron subtypes – and the results were the same. “Peptide…strongly inhibits all major SARS-CoV-2 variants to date,” they wrote.

AEGIS Science Corporation microbiologists process tests for COVID-19 and Monkey Smallpox at their facility in Nashville, Tennessee, on August 4, 2022.

Nathan Posner / Anadolu Agency via Getty

That in itself is encouraging. After all, some drugs — and vaccines — lost their effectiveness as SARS-CoV-2 developed, mutation superposition are beginning to render the virus unrecognizable to older therapies and antibodies.

That’s a particular problem with monoclonal antibodies, one of the oldest types of COVID therapy. There are several single-line formulas. But only one, bebtelovimab, still working fine against BA.5, the Omicron sub-variable currently dominates most of the world.

It is possible that, with the next large set of viral mutations, monoclonals will not work. The team that discovered the peptide wrote: “There is a specific urgent need for alternative antiviral drugs that target processes less likely to be affected by mutations.

Brunger explains that peptides should avoid the trap of reducing effectiveness. Where many current therapies bind spike protein before the virus tries to attach to our cells, the peptide binds to it at a later stage, the “membrane fusion” takes place just before infection.

“Viruses don’t usually mutate much in the region targeted by the peptide,” says Brunger. “This signals as well as a widely applicable antiviral compound.” A drug designed around the new peptide should work equally well for current and future forms of COVID.

Unless, of course, the virus surprises us.

Ali Mokdad, a professor of health measurement science at the University of Washington Health Institute who was not involved in the study, told The Daily Beast, the science behind the peptide discovery is sound. “This is very promising and a good sign of how quickly science is evolving.” The same peptide could also have therapeutic applications beyond COVID, Mokdad adds.

Brunger to one person said he thinks the best application is COVID therapy in inhaled form. Scientists and drug developers are increasingly turning their attention to inhalers and vaccines as they look for faster, longer-lasting effects that start where COVID begins — in the throat and lungs.

But the team discovered the peptide was not capable of turning it into a drug. “We hope that a company will build on the results of our research and work towards clinical trials,” says Brunger.

Do not hold your breath. “The challenge is that it takes time from discovery to application and sometimes acceptance by the public and other scientists,” explains Mokdad. All that time consuming work is expensive, also. Large-scale trials alone can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Drugs are developed and approved the fastest when there is strong government support. Tens of billions of dollars in funding from the US government and other wealthy governments have helped accelerate COVID therapies and vaccines from scientific journals to labs to clinics and pharmacies.

But that support has dwindled as much of the public and many of their leaders have moved on from COVID. “One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the last several months… is getting us out of the acute phase of emergency where the US government is buying vaccines, buying treatments, buying treatments. diagnostic tests,” said Ashish Jha, White House COVID response coordinator, said last month.

Two years ago, a new peptide-based drug might have been indisputable. Today it is a heavier lift. If a company has strong interest, a peptide therapy could debut before federal regulators in a year or two. But it’s also possible that this promising new molecule got stuck in scientific journals, where it couldn’t help anyone.

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