Scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem say they have identified several drugs that could potentially help treat, if not “cure”, people who develop COVID-19.
Prof. Shy Arkin, a biochemist in the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Science, told The Jerusalem Post that in lab tests in which cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 were placed together with the drugs for two days, “almost 100% of the cells lived despite being infected with the virus.”
In contrast, without the preexisting drug compounds, around 50% of the cells died after coming in contact with the virus.
Arkin and his team culled through a library of more than 2,800 approved-for-use compounds, identifying 18 drugs they felt could be effective. In unpublished work, the researchers were able to show that several of these compounds “exhibited remarkable potency against the whole virus in in vitro experiments.”
Two of them are Darapladib, used for the treatment of atherosclerosis, and Flumatinib, used for the treatment of certain blood cancers. Arkin said he was hesitant to share the names of any of the drugs, adding that he could not recommend them until they underwent proper clinical trials.
The team focused on drug repurposing to potentially expedite any future regulatory steps. Since the drugs are already being used for other indications, their toxicity and side effects, for example, are known and approved.
The way the drugs work is by inhibiting two targets in the virus: the E (envelope) protein and the 3a protein.
The E protein is the most conserved of all virus proteins. For example, while the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1 (the 2003 virus) are only about 75% identical, their E proteins are roughly 95% alike. This means the drugs would likely remain effective even when the virus mutates, Arkin told the Post.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines target the spike protein.
In previous studies, E and 3a proteins were shown to be essential for viral infectivity. Arkin’s team was among the first to study the E protein of the first SARS coronavirus in 2004.
As part of research that Arkin’s team has been conducting for more than two decades, they identified that the E protein is an ion channel, a type of protein family expressed by virtually all living cells that because of its structure has “served as excellent and frequent targets for pharmaceutical point interventions,” including for cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, arrhythmia, neurodegenerative diseases, hypertension, angina and more, the report said.
It is important that “a large arsenal” of drugs exist to fight SARS-CoV-2, Arkin said.
“We should never be in a situation where in our arsenal we only have one firearm,” he said. “If we only have one and we rely solely on it, and then there comes a time that it fails, we will be in a very precarious situation.”
Arkin believes his team is set for in vitro and in vivo studies, and he is looking for a pharmaceutical partner to help carry these trials through.
Citing the success of Gilead obtaining US Food and Drug Administration approval for Remdesivir in record time at the start of the pandemic, Arkin said he was optimistic that at least some of these compounds could be approved for use against COVID “very quickly with the right partner.”