UQ continues testing for COVID-19 vaccine, treatment

Monday, 20 April, 2020

UQ continues testing for COVID-19 vaccine, treatment

The University of Queensland’s (UQ) potential COVID-19 vaccine is entering an important new phase of testing with the live coronavirus to determine how effectively it induces protection against coronavirus infection.

UQ will partner with Dutch company Viroclinics Xplore on the crucial preclinical studies, with vaccine program co-leader Dr Keith Chappell saying the ability to build on an existing partnership with this world-class facility is a huge advantage for the project.

“These protection studies must be done in specialist biosecurity facilities as they use the live virus, and our longstanding partnership with Viroclinics Xplore gives us the confidence that this can be achieved as quickly as possible,” Dr Chappell said.

“This work will establish a critical package of data that will take us through to human clinical trials in Q3 2020.”

The vaccine has been developed using UQ’s molecular clamp technology that locks the ‘spike’ protein into a shape which allows the immune system to be able to recognise and then neutralise the virus. UQ’s Professor Trent Munro said beginning a large multi-arm study at Viroclinics Xplore is critical as the team moves towards initial human safety testing, since this will establish a more complete understanding of how the vaccine performs.

UQ has also announced a partnership with Cytiva, formerly known as GE Healthcare Life Sciences, which will develop the material for clinical trials and is also preparing to scale up equipment for future mass production.

Meanwhile, UQ scientist Professor Luke Guddat is one of an international team of researchers that has tested more than 10,000 compounds to identify drug candidates that may help treat COVID-19. As part of a project led by ShanghaiTech University and published in the journal Nature, the team tested the efficacy of approved drugs, drug candidates in clinical trials and other compounds.

“Currently there are no targeted therapeutics or effective treatment options for COVID-19,” Prof Guddat said.

“In order to rapidly discover lead compounds for clinical use, we initiated a program of high-throughput drug screening, both in laboratories and also using the latest computer software to predict how different drugs bind to the virus.

Prof Guddat said the project targeted the main COVID-19 virus enzyme, known as the main protease or Mpro, which plays a pivotal role in mediating viral replication. “This makes it an attractive drug target for this virus, and as people don’t naturally have this enzyme, compounds that target it are likely to have low toxicity.

“We add the drugs directly to the enzyme or to cell cultures growing the virus and assess how much of each compound is required to stop the enzyme from working or to kill the virus. If the amount is small, then we have a promising compound for further studies.”

After assaying thousands of drugs, researchers found of the six that appear to be effective in inhibiting the enzyme, one is of particular interest.

“We’re particularly looking at several leads that have been subjected to clinical trials including for the prevention and treatment of various disorders such as cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, stroke, atherosclerosis and cancer,” Prof Guddat said.

“Compounds that are already along the pipeline to drug discovery are preferred, as they can be further tested as antivirals at an accelerated rate compared to new drug leads that would have to go through this process from scratch.

“With continued and upscaled efforts we are optimistic that new candidates can enter the COVID-19 drug discovery pipeline in the near future.”

Image caption: A graphical representation of how a discovered compound inhibits the COVID-19 virus main protease. Image credit: Professor Luke Guddat.

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