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U Of U Scientists Using Years Of HIV Research In Search For Coronavirus Drug Development

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – As the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, many research scientists in Utah and around the world recognized that their work could be critical in attacking the pandemic. For a couple of biochemists at the University of Utah, the strategies they developed in their work on HIV are now turning out to be potent in the search for new drugs to combat the novel coronavirus.

So many of the scientists in our community working on the world’s biggest problem right now have quietly worked away in their labs for years. For two decades, a pair of biochemists at the University of Utah worked on strategies for attacking HIV that should now help them attack the novel coronavirus.

“HIV and the virus that causes COVID-19 have a lot of similarities in the way they attack a cell,” said Dr. Michael Kay, a professor of biochemistry at the university.

That’s the key to their work as he and Dr. Debbie Eckert, a research assistant professor of biochemistry at the U., shift focus from HIV to the coronavirus.

For nearly 20 years, Kay’s lab explored how HIV gets into human cells to start an infection. They developed a drug called CPT-31 to block that process. It is now ready for clinical trials, but no longer their primary focus in the lab.

“When COVID-19 came along, we were eager to see if we could help in the fight by adapting what we’ve learned from our HIV experience and applying it to COVID-19,” said Kay.

In the now-familiar red image of the coronavirus, the red proteins coating the outside of the virus are called spike proteins.


The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus causes COVID-19

“That is what coronavirus uses to get into host cells. HIV has a very similar protein on the outside that it uses as well,” Eckert said.

In their lab, they learned how to target that protein as HIV was getting into the cells and block that process.

“Since coronavirus uses something very similar, we’re hoping that we can use the same type of strategies to block the coronavirus spike protein from doing what it needs to do in order to get into a cell,” said Eckert.

“Those tools and techniques can greatly accelerate the drug discovery process so that we can take those lessons and apply them much more rapidly to emerging infectious diseases,” said Kay.

Investments made in their lab work for HIV, SARS and Ebola were paying off now because they do not need to start from scratch. That, along with the urgency brought on by the pandemic, speeds up the process, said Kay. But, none of their work and none of the drugs that may be developed can be rushed.

“It really does feel like my whole career has been leading up to working on this project,” said Eckert.

Kay said that in this global search, no individual idea is likely to work alone. So the collaboration they are part of locally and globally makes a difference.

“This is really unprecedented,” said Kay. “People are sharing their data, and resources at an incredibly fast rate.“

Research scientists are sharing and posting data online without waiting for publication, said Kay. “So that people can use that information immediately and see what ideas are out there,” he said.

In their lab, the biochemists are thankful for the hard work of graduate students, post-doctoral trainees, and staff scientists: essential workers responding to the pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Michael Kay

“I think it’s pretty exciting as a scientist to see a problem, to know that you are trained to address it and to be able to have an impact,” said Eckert.

The current pandemic is testing the limits of how quickly scientists can develop safe and effective drugs, said Kay. While they work as rapidly as they can for potential solutions, there are no shortcuts in science. The development and testing of any new drug would take a couple of years, he said.

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