Researchers at FIU’s Biomolecular Sciences Institute have identified a potential pathway for treating a COVID-19 infection using federally-approved drugs through the use of computer screening.
One of the identified candidate drugs, quinupristin, is an antibiotic approved by the FDA to treat certain bacterial infections. However, it is not approved to treat COVID-19 and researchers caution that more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
This finding, published in the journal J. Med Microbiol, is the latest effort by BSI Associate Director Prem Chapagain, biological sciences Assistant Professor Jessica Liberles and other FIU researchers to find a potential treatment for COVID-19.
Working in partnership with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the National Cancer Institute, Chapagain and BSI Director Yuk-Ching Tse-Dinh are part of the research team’s efforts to prevent the coronavirus from hijacking a human host factor to reproduce in infected human cells.
Coronaviruses like the ones that cause SARS, MERS and COVID-19 latch on to human cells and convert them into virus factories. High efficiency of viral production requires the human enzyme Topoisomerase-IIIß, or TOP3B. UTMB’s Dr. Mariano Garcia-Rivera published this discovery in the journal Antiviral Research and has reached out to Tse-Dinh for collaboration to explore TOP3B as a target for antiviral treatment.
Chapagain and Liberles’ new effort identifying the potential treatment is based on prior research Liberles conducted following the 2013 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak. Liberles, who specializes in the evolution of proteins, is especially interested in discovering how the virus that causes COVID-19 evolved and caused a global pandemic.
In studying the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Liberles realized targets for antiviral drugs present in MERS were also present in the new virus. Most of the targets were in a tunnel within the protein RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, or RdRp.
Liberles, Chapagain and graduate student Rudramani Pokhrel then used computer modeling to search for FDA-approved drugs that could block the tunnel and cripple the virus’ ability to replicate.
Computer screening identified quinupristin as one of the top drug candidates. Remdesivir, the only drug with an FDA-issued emergency use authorization to treat COVID-19, also targets RdRp.
“RdRp is one of the primary targets to find out if any of the FDA approved drugs can bind,” Chapagain said. “It does not necessarily mean these drugs will be effective. These drugs are designed for some other purpose, so the hope is that some of these will bind to the viral targets such as RDRP and prevent virus replication.”
As long as the pandemic continues, researchers at BSI continue to tirelessly forge a path toward finding a treatment, Tse-Dinh said.