New candidate drug against COVID-19

There are no drugs that can cure infected people. But SDU researchers have now developed a substance that may form the basis for the development of drugs against COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, arrived a year ago and changed our lives.

While vaccination programs around the world are currently ongoing, we do not yet know for how long the vaccine will provide immune protection against infection and whether currently approved vaccines can provide protection against variants of the emerging virus.

Also, it appears that vaccines cannot prevent disease in people who have already been infected. Unlike vaccines, there are currently no effective drugs that act against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Imitating nature

New research by Associate Professor Jasmin Mecinovic and collaborators from the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Southern Denmark now presents a compound that could provide a basis for drug development against COVID-19.

The work has recently been published in Chemical communications.

Our approach is based on mimicking nature and the idea is to prevent the virus from entering the cells of the body. If the virus does not enter cells, it cannot survive. Instead, the immune system destroys the viral particles, thus preventing an infection, explains Jasmin Mecinovic.

How to cheat the virus

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the family of coronaviruses, which get their name from their characteristic corona-shaped envelope that protects their RNA of being damaged. This crown is made up of viral spike proteins, which act like picks that the virus uses to penetrate a host cell.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein specifically interacts with an enzyme, called the ACE2 receptor, to initiate cell entry and infection.

The ACE2 receptor is found on the surface of cells in many different tissues and is especially common in the lungs. For this reason, SARS-CoV-2 infection causes (severe) respiratory illness symptoms in many people.

Mecinovic and his colleagues have discovered that peptides (a small part of the protein) made to look exactly like the ACE2 receptor can act as a decoy and prevent the binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

More studies are needed

This suggests that ACE2 receptor-based molecular decoys could be an effective treatment to prevent virus infection, says doctoral student Marijn Maas, first author of the paper.

Bringing a new drug to market is a long way. The next step is to continue studying our synthetic peptide, for example, making variations to see if we can improve its potency, says Jasmin Mecinovic.

Reference: “Targeting the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein by stapled hACE2 peptides” by Marijn N. Maas, Jordi CJ Hintzen, Philipp MG Löffler and Jasmin Mecinović, March 2, 2021, Chemical communications.
DOI: 10.1039 / D0CC08387A

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