Prof. Frederick West tells us how a discussion with a Ph.D. student informed his current work on antiviral drugs to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Right now, I am completely motivated by the crisis we all face with the pandemic and so we want to develop broad-spectrum antiviral drugs against COVID-19. We have two separate programs that focus on novel therapeutic approaches to this virus and if either one were to succeed, it could be a game-changer around the world.
The big challenge is getting from a compound that protects cells from infection in vitro, to one that can circulate through the body and find the cells that need protecting. One class of compounds we are working with was originally developed against the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), inhibiting the RdRP enzyme, and they also work against the SARS-CoV-2 RdRP. Another class targets viral attachment and we have recently identified several of these that perform well in the COVID assay. The next step is validating these results in preclinical animal trials, which we hope to start soon.
One really needs to be open to possibilities – some of our compounds originated from a curiosity-driven chemical synthesis project and my Ph.D. student insisted that we should test them for antiviral activity due to their resemblance to a natural product known to have antiviral properties. It is also essential to form alliances with a diverse set of collaborators who can recognize problems and opportunities outside your own area of expertise, and who will pull you outside your comfort zone.
Q: What kind of mindset do you need to achieve the Next Great Impossible?
A: The path from lab bench to clinic is long and treacherous. Persistence and delusional optimism are required to push through.