Stories: A unique drug to eradicate several viruses simultaneously
NOVIRUSES2BRAIN is an ongoing research project, funded by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program. Its ambition is to develop a unique drug able to eradicate multiple viral species simultaneously.
A motto of your project is “one size fits all”, what is the idea behind it?
The diversity of viruses infecting humans is immense. The probability of simultaneous infections is high and is even higher for viruses infecting humans through the same animal vector, such as Aedes mosquitos. Dengue virus, Zika virus, and Chikungunya virus, just to name a few, are all transmitted by the same mosquito. In NOVIRUSES2BRAIN, we take into account this reality and we develop broad spectrum antiviral drugs capable of inactivating different viruses simultaneously, in particular those transmitted through Aedes mosquitos. That’s where the motto “one size fits all” comes from.
How does your approach differ from currently used approaches?
Our approach differs in two very important aspects:
- The currently used approaches typically target one viral protein, whereas we aim at disrupting the viral integrity. Take the example of SARS-CoV-2: most drug development projects focus on the enzymes RNA polymerase and protease. On the contrary, we are exploring an Achilles heel, which is common to several viruses and not a protein specific to a certain viral species.
- Secondly, many viruses reach the brain and form reservoirs in the brain. The Zika virus, for instance, causes serious neurological damage in new-borns while Dengue occasionally causes brain damage. Having antiviral drugs reaching the brain is a challenge in itself as the brain is a highly protected organ and very few molecules can pass from the blood stream to the brain. This protection is important to keep us healthy but becomes a problem when medicines need to reach the brain for curing diseases.
Your project started in September 2019, what was its first research phase about?
The molecules that we are developing as drugs are quite innovative, so the first step was the synthesis of these molecules. Now we want to confirm that they are safe. More important than being very active in curing, medicines must be safe. Safety comes ahead of efficacy in drug development. This thought guides us and we are now testing the toxicology of the molecules we are developing.
How was your research ‘affected’ by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our academic institutes are under lockdown, which is ironic: antiviral drug development being limited by… a virus!! But we are restless and remain positive facing problems so, with the help of our project officer, we are now planning to include SARS-CoV-2 in the list of viruses to be addressed by NOVIRUSES2BRAIN. In fact, this virus has the same Achilles heel I mentioned before, so it can be fought with the drugs we are developing, in principle. Moreover, although the interplay between the central nervous system and SARS-CoV-2 remains elusive, it is known that COVID-19 patients loose the sense of smell and taste, which is evidence that, directly or indirectly, the virus affects nerve cells.
Having research and innovation on SARS-CoV-2 as a priority and emergency, we count on being back to the benches very, very soon. The hospital samples and the high security lab are waiting for us.
Which virus is from your point of view, as a researcher, the most “fascinating” one? And what is so special about it?
We work with viruses that harm and kill, so fascination may not be the right word… I guess the one that most captures my attention is Influenza, which has caused several serious pandemics, epidemics and outbreaks, in spite of all scientific efforts to defeat it. More than one century after the great pandemic of 1918, flu is still a concern and a universal vaccine remains a challenge. We win battles but the war seems endless. Innovation in drugs or vaccines does not encompass the pace of new scientific knowledge on influenza virus strains.
We have been distracted and arrogant about infectious diseases. Microbes went underrated during the second half of the 20th century. The 100th anniversary of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic passed unnoticed in spite of its burden: 50-100 million deaths. This gives an idea of how distracted and careless we have been. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria first and SARS-CoV-2 now advice how microbes and infectious diseases should be back urgently on scientific, societal and political agendas.
FET-Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.
More information available here: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/unique-drug-eradicate-several-viruses-simultaneously