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

May 5, 2020, 6:09 PM | Updated: 8:16 pm

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.

KSL 5 TV Live


FILE: Former Utah Jazz John Stockton reacts during a 76-70 Wichita State win over the Gonzaga Bulld...

Michael Houck

Former Utah Jazz star John Stockton sues Washington medical director about COVID misinformation policy

Former Utah Jazz superstar John Stockton has filed a federal lawsuit against Washington officials on First Amendment violations, arguing the state's policy of COVID-19 misinformation is unconstitutional.

1 month ago

Deer Creek Reservoir...

Alex Cabrero

State parks expecting another record visitation year, hiring more workers

It didn't matter how cold or snowy it was at Deer Creek State Park Friday afternoon. Nothing was going to stop Leonard Sawyer from taking his boat out to do a little fishing.

2 months ago

FILE —  Respiratory virus illness activity continues to increase across the US.
(Joe Burbank/Orl...

Emma Benson

‘Not viruses to mess around with’: Experts urge caution during ongoing ‘tripledemic’

Experts say though not as severe as last year, this winter we're seeing another "tripledemic" – rising cases of COVID-19, flu and RSV in Utah.

3 months ago

FILE - COVID-19 antigen home tests. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Emma Benson

‘The ICUs are full:’ Keep yourself and others healthy this holiday

It's time for holiday gatherings, but with more people around us comes a greater risk of getting sick.

4 months ago

Julianna Preece goes through the mountain of medical documents she's acquired for her health condit...

Lauren Steinbrecher

Herriman couple is suing CVS, says 5x Covid vaccine dose mistake caused health problems

A couple is suing a Utah CVS vaccination clinic, saying a nurse’s mistake led to the wife receiving five times the normal COVID-19 vaccine dose and caused serious health issues she’s still dealing with today.

4 months ago

FILE - COVID-19 antigen home tests. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Associated Press

More free COVID-19 tests from the government are available for home delivery through the mail

Americans can order more free COVID-19 tests online for home delivery.

5 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

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