Promising trial drug blocks early coronavirus infection in engineered human tissue

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WATCH (March 9, 2020): Canadian research teams getting money to look into novel coronavirus – Mar 9, 2020

A research team led by a University of British Columbia researcher and backed by emergency federal funding may have found a trial drug that can treat early infection of the novel coronavirus.

Led by UBC’s Dr. Josef Penninger, the team published peer-reviewed findings on April 2 in the journal Cell, saying the trial drug, called APN01, can “significantly block early stages” of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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In an interview with Global News radio host Jill Bennett, Penninger describes the trial drug as having two functions, with one being “physically blocking the door to the virus so it cannot enter” a person’s body.

“The second function is actually to protect tissues like the lung, the heart or the kidneys from damage,” he said.

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The virus was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019 but has since spread across the globe. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11.

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COVID-19 survivors answer viewers’ questions – Apr 2, 2020

The disease has so far resulted in more than a million infections around the world and more than 53,000 deaths as of 11 p.m. ET on April 2, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

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Countries around the world have put in place measures such as social distancing, quarantines, lockdowns and border closures in order to reduce the spread of the virus and prevent it from overwhelming their respective health-care systems.

Even so, Europe recently found itself battling the pandemic, with Italy and Spain accounting for a large number of the global death toll.

Last month, the federal government granted emergency funding to various researchers and institutions across Canada as part of its response to the pandemic.

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Years ago, Penninger helped find the pathway through which SARS entered human cells and began to replicate — the protein ACE2.

That knowledge has now led to a trial drug that holds promise for treating early infections. Penninger said there are clinical human trials set to take place in Europe.

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“The trial will go probably for around two months,” he said. “Early summer, we should know if it’s working or not.”

The study published in Cell shows the drug “can reduce the virus by a factor of 1,000 to 5,000 times” in engineered human tissue, he said. It’s a sign of hope while the world waits for a potential vaccine.

“Our angle — hopefully it works — will be a treatment for people who already got sick,” Penninger said. “Because it is very scary to get sick, and we don’t know what happens afterward.” 

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Coronavirus outbreak: UK government promises 100,000 daily coronavirus tests by the end of April – Apr 2, 2020

Currently stuck in Vienna, Austria because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, the virus researcher said he had “warned everybody that this will be a dangerous virus” weeks ago. 

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But honestly, I had no idea that this would go that far, that we live now in a society where we cannot go out anymore,” he said.

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However, he noted the mitigation and prevention measures taken in countries around the world are important because without them, 40 million deaths could have taken place in 2020 alone, according to a finding in a recent Imperial College report.

“I’m very hopeful that our trial, hopefully, will work,” Penninger said. 

As of April 2, epidemiological data from the Canadian government showed that two-thirds (67 per cent) of the country’s more than 5,500 reported COVID-19 cases are linked to community transmission, with the rest either exposed to the virus while travelling or exposed to a recently returned traveller.

— With files by the Canadian Press