Dr Denis Shields, professor of clinical bioinformatics at UCD was part of an international team of scientists who recently identified small proteins that help Covid-19 infect human cells and respond to existing drug treatments. This discovery means a potential anti-Covid drug could be developed in the future. This new research on the virus has been reported in the journal, Science Signalling.

To develop a drug specifically for Covid-19 from scratch would take years, which is why existing drugs are being altered to attempt to deal with the virus, such as the Ebola medication, Remdesivir. However this repurposing will still take time, meaning no new drug will come in time to manage the current wave of the pandemic.

Dr Shields’ research, involving the use of powerful computers, was able to work out how the proteins or peptides enabled Covid-19 to attach itself to a host cell and proceed to make copies of itself. This means that if the proteins can be blocked, the virus will no longer be able to access the cell. According to Dr Shields, UCD will be collaborating with RCSI to advance this research. 

There are two possible ways the drugs might work to prevent infection – either by stopping the host cell and virus from bonding in the first place or if the host and virus do bind successfully the drug could prevent viruses from moving within the host cell. The current idea for consumption of the drug is inhalation rather than injection.

Dr Shields states ‘it is possible that vaccine protection could wear off, and if coupled with lack of uptake for boosters, outbreaks could occur in 2022 and 2023. The drugs we hope to develop will not be ready by then. However, other existing approved drugs that people are looking into may be adapted from other uses to help reduce the death and injury caused by COVID.  Our work aims to understand better how the coronavirus works, and to use that knowledge to develop drugs that might help in future pandemics caused by escaped variants of COVID-19 or caused by other similar viruses. The more information we have, the better we can choose drugs or drug combinations among existing and new compounds to further stifle such viruses in ill people.’

This breakthrough might have come too late for the present pandemic, but the research provides useful information that can be taken onboard and a potential drug if there is ever a future outbreak.

Lucy Mackeral – Reporter