Laurier researchers developing drug to prevent coronaviruses

A research team at Wilfrid Laurier University has been working on AntiV, an antiviral drug that could be used to prevent respiratory virus infections like coronaviruses.

It could be 3 to 5 years before AntiV is ready to market

The researchers are seeking industrial investment as they prepare for the next phases of their research on an antiviral drug, which include testing the drug on three-dimensional lung cell cultures. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A research team at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., has been working on an antiviral drug that could be used to prevent respiratory virus infections, like coronaviruses.

Primary investigator Stephanie DeWitte-Orr is currently collaborating with a research lab in Winnipeg to trial the drug with the virus causing COVID-19 to circulate the globe.

"It's not something that is specific to one virus. Cells protect themselves from any virus using this immune response, and so we had been using it to look at other viruses. We actually were trying it with Ebola and with influenza and then SARS-CoV-2 emerged," explained DeWitte-Orr, a health sciences and biology associate professor at the university.

The drug, codenamed AntiV, stimulates the innate immune system, part of our immune system that every cell has to protect itself from a virus infection. When taken through an inhaler, it could act as a "biological mask" to prevent viruses from breaching someone's airway.

"There are some innate immune stimulants that are used as drugs, there's actually one that's used to treat warts, a topical. I think largely the innate immune response is an untapped resource when it comes to developing antiviral drugs," said DeWitte-Orr.

Stephanie DeWitte-Orr is an associate professor in health sciences and biology at Wilfrid Laurier University. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought virology research "front and centre," said DeWitte-Orr, and the need for antivirals are increasing, which are typically difficult drugs to develop due to virus mutation and the challenge of targeting the virus and not human cells.

"The beauty of an innate immune drug is that a virus cannot mutate around innate immune response. And the innate immune response is broad spectrum, so it's not like we're developing it for one virus or one strain of virus and it wouldn't apply to other viruses," said DeWitte-Orr.

The AntiV drug could be complementary to a COVID-19 vaccine, she added, and could serve parts of the population that may be poor candidates for a vaccine.

She said an antiviral drug also has the potential to be more accessible, but would require multiple doses, where a vaccine is usually distributed one time.

"There's always going to be proportions of the population that are not able to be vaccinated. They're not good candidates, they're either immunocompromised or they're too young or they're too old," she said. "Or maybe this vaccine they're developing might not establish lifelong immunity and so there might be times where you're not protected with a vaccine. In those instances, an antiviral drug is necessary."

DeWitte-Orr and her partners are seeking industrial investment as they prepare for the next steps of their research, which include testing the drug on three-dimensional lung cell cultures. She anticipates it could be three to five years before AntiV is ready to market.

"Unfortunately, COVID-19 won't be the last virus we face and this drug can prepare us for next time," said DeWitte-Orr. "An off-the-shelf, inhalable antiviral drug would be a valuable tool globally to prevent the spread of future respiratory outbreaks."


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