“Vaccines will take too long”: Treating coronavirus by repurposing existing drugs

Toronto-based startup Cyclica has partnered with a renowned Chinese institute to fight the outbreak.

“Vaccines will take too long”: Treating coronavirus by repurposing existing drugs

The response to the coronavirus crisis has reached a new apex. On March 11, U.S. President Donald Trump suspended most travel from continental Europe for 30 days as Italy continues to grapple with the self-imposed quarantine of its more than 60 million citizens. Meanwhile, scientists around the world are scrambling to produce a coronavirus vaccine. Some experts here in Canada, however, question whether that is the right strategy.

“Vaccines will take too long,” says Naheed Kurji, president and CEO of drug discovery startup Cyclica. “A vaccine like this may take 12 to 18 months to develop; we need to find solutions now to avoid greater tragedy.” And Kurji believes he and his team can solve the problem by repurposing existing drugs.

Last week, Cyclica announced its partnership with renowned Beijing medical institution Materia Medica to discover antiviral drug candidates for the coronavirus. The impetus behind the initiative is practical: by using Cyclica’s AI technology, which is faster and more accurate than any human when analyzing data, the team hopes to identify multiple therapies to treat the coronavirus, while saving billions in costs for research and clinical trials.

The best way to understand how Kurji’s tech works is by analogy. In order to be effective, medications must act like a key, locking and unlocking various proteins to attack a given disease. In the past, when a novel disease surfaced, it would require years of drug development by doctors and scientists. With Cyclica, the company’s AI platform searches databases for existing drugs, already functional and approved by the FDA, to unlock proteins that could be effective against the coronavirus. “We believe specific drugs have the potential to attack more than one disease,” Kurji says. “Sometimes keys can lock and unlock doors they weren’t supposed to. In the world of patient care, that represents a massive opportunity.”

Kurji is quick to warn, however, that this current outbreak is a very serious issue, and can only be conquered by educating the population, relieving the burden on the research and healthcare communities through resources and financing, and most importantly, taking individual responsibility for one’s health, especially when coming in contact with vulnerable people.

Professor Sachdev Sidhu of the University of Toronto is also skeptical of the vaccine approach to the coronavirus. An expert in protein engineering and therapeutics, Sidhu reminds us that vaccines are most necessary when a massive number of people — millions and billions — are adversely affected. As is often the case in science, the most elegant solution is also the simplest. “I think it’s wiser to thoughtfully treat the thousands of coronavirus patients, rather than spend billions in resources to vaccinate them all,” Sidhu says. The approach he favours is to capture and contain the virus and treat people appropriately.

The public should be cautious, Sidhu says, but also consider the facts and historical context. “Don’t make this virus, well, viral,” he says. “This virus attacks respiratory systems, not common sense.” The professor is adamant that the coronavirus is a solvable scientific problem, one that we’ve faced before with similar outbreaks, and one we will likely face again.

“This virus has no will,” he says. “It’s under your control.”


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