British Columbia

UBC researcher part of team working on new COVID-19 treatment

Dr. Josef Penninger, director of the University of British Columbia's Life Sciences Institute, is building upon his earlier work on the SARS virus.

Pilot clinical trial led by international team in China will use Dr. Josef Penninger's findings

A member of the medical staff, left, at a Wuhan hospital in China, with a patient who has displayed mild symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus on Feb. 17. (AFP/Getty Images)

Research from a University of British Columbia scientist will help support a pilot clinical trial of a drug that doctors hope can be used to treat COVID-19. 

Dr. Josef Penninger, director of the UBC's Life Sciences Institute, says the research is based on his extensive work on the SARS virus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is similar to the virus that caused the SARS outbreak, which killed almost 800 people worldwide between 2002-2003. 

Penninger worked in Toronto at the time, which was a major site of the outbreak. He was able to determine how the SARS-causing virus enters and kills cells, ultimately leading to lung failure.

"Based on this principle, we developed the medicine," Penninger said.  "And now it turns out the new virus ... uses exactly the same principle."

Penninger says both viruses attach to a surface receptor called ACE2 on the cell in order to enter and kill it.  The medication works by stopping the virus from making that attachment. 

Penninger is part of a medical team that includes others from Toronto, China, and Europe. 

"We already did the clinical development. We already tested it out in humans. So the drug is safe, relatively safe, as much as we needed to be," he said. 

The first trial, set to begin in Guangzhou, China this week, will involve 28 patients for seven days.

Clinicians will assess whether patients respond positively to the treatment and how long it takes for symptoms to subside. Depending on the results of this trial, the team will then move onto another clinical trial with a larger number of patients.

Over 82,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Though over 2,800 people have died, more than 30,000 have recovered. 

There have been 12 cases of COVID-19 in Canada: seven in B.C., and five in Ontario. None have been fatal.

With files from On The Coast