Off-patent liver disease drug could prevent COVID-19 infection and protect against future variants, researchers find: Unique experiments involved mini-organs, animal research, donated human organs, volunteers and patients

Cambridge scientists have identified an off-patent drug that can be repurposed to prevent COVID-19 — and may be capable of protecting against future variants of the virus — in research involving a unique mix of ‘mini-organs’, donor organs, animal studies and patients.

The research, published today in Nature, showed that an existing drug used to treat a type of liver disease is able to ‘lock’ the doorway by which SARS-CoV-2 enters our cells, a receptor on the cell surface known as ACE2. Because this drug targets the host cells and not the virus, it should protect against future new variants of the virus as well as other coronaviruses that might emerge.

If confirmed in larger clinical trials, this could provide a vital drug for protecting those individuals for whom vaccines are ineffective or inaccessible as well as individuals at increased risk of infection.

Dr Fotios Sampaziotis, from the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital, led the research in collaboration with Professor Ludovic Vallier from the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité.

Dr Sampaziotis said: “Vaccines protect us by boosting our immune system so that it can recognise the virus and clear it, or at least weaken it. But vaccines don’t work for everyone — for example patients with a weak immune system — and not everyone have access to them. Also, the virus can mutate to new vaccine-resistant variants.

“We’re interested in finding alternative ways to protect us from SARS-CoV-2 infection that are not dependent on the immune system and could complement vaccination. We’ve discovered a way to close the door to the virus, preventing it from getting into our cells in the first place and protecting us from infection.”

From mini-organs and animals…

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