British Columbia

New study from UBC researcher outlines pathway toward blocking COVID-19 virus

UBC researcher Dr. Josef Penninger has found a potential drug therapy that blocks the cellular door used by the COVID-19 virus to infect its hosts. Experts say the research is 'promising' but human testing is needed first.

'There is hope for this horrible pandemic,' says UBC scientist Dr. Josef Penninger

'There is hope for this horrible pandemic,' says Austrian biomedical researcher Josef Penniger who is also a professor in the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

The University of British Columbia announced Thursday that an international team led by Dr. Josef Penninger has found a potential drug that helps block infection from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Penninger, a biomedical researcher from Austria, is a professor in UBC's faculty of medicine and director of the Life Sciences Institute there.

His study published April 2 in the peer-reviewed journal Cell focuses on a protein on the surface of human cells which is a key receptor for the spikes of glycoprotein characteristic in the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The study provides direct evidence that a protein called APN01 (human recombinant soluble angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 – hrsACE2) — is useful as an "antiviral therapy" for the novel coronavirus, say its authors, because the virus binds to it rather than a cell wall.

Penninger has been working for decades to shine a light on cellular doorways, or receptors, that allow viruses entry into human organs. He's now turned to the virus that causes COVID-19.

"This virus hits the good guy and gets rid of the good guy, and that's why this virus is really dangerous because we lose protection of multiple tissues," said Penniger in a telephone call from Austria where he is stuck because of the global lockdown to stop the disease's spread.

There are now more than one million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and tens of thousands are dead. As the virus spreads so does the intense search for treatments, as there are no tested antiviral therapies yet.

Penninger has split his life between Vancouver and Vienna since 2018 and his Arnold Schwarzenegger-style accent sounds raspy after months of working 19 hours a day.

It was Penniger's passion for the natural world that led him to the discovery of the receptor at the heart of his current research, while he was studying fruit flies in a Toronto university lab 21 years ago.

"I love fruit flies. ... I'm totally obsessed with nature," he said. "The virus, if you look at it, it's beautiful."

He and colleagues at the University of Toronto and the Institute of Molecular Biology in Vienna conducted earlier work on the same receptor using the SARS virus, which is also a coronavirus.

"This virus is a brother or sister of the SARS virus," said Penninger.

Cell cultures analyzed in the study found the potential drug therapy called APN01 'significantly' inhibited the coronavirus load, according to a UBC release. (IMBA/Tibor Kulcsar/University of British Columbia)

Human drug trials begin soon

APN01 is scheduled to begin clinical trials in Europe, according to the UBC news release.

Penninger said he twigged that his drug might be able to help back in January when a Chinese scientist published the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus and he saw the similarity to SARS.

So far, his team's latest research related to COVID-19 has been conducted on cells and engineered human tissue in a laboratory setting.

Infectious disease experts say the research is preliminary, promising and needs human trials before it is anywhere near becoming a drug treatment. 

'Promising' say experts

Infectious disease physician and researcher at the University of Toronto, Isaac Bogoch, said the drug is interesting, but it will take time before it's available even if it pans out in upcoming human trials.

"This is seen as one of the crucial pathways for COVID-19. This is clearly a big step in the right direction," said Bogoch.

Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's School of Medicine in New York City, said in an email the leap from a laboratory to the real worlds is huge.

"Very interesting. But, still a long way from proof of clinical safety or efficacy. Many things fail that look promising in a dish.

"Organized, controlled human testing is still very much needed before giving this to anyone."

The former head of the Centre For Immunization and Respiratory Infectious Diseases with the Public Health Agency of Canada agrees.

"It looks like a promising drug; however, the real test will be what happens in humans ... whether the dose that might inhibit the virus is achievable in humans and not too toxic to them," said Dr. John Spika in an email.

The research was supported, in part, by federal emergency funding aimed at accelerating testing and development of potential cures or treatments to help deal with the outbreak, said UBC.


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.


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