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Sea sponges contain compounds that block Covid infection

A team of researchers led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) has recently investigated over 350 compounds derived from natural sources such as plants, fungi, and sea sponges in order to find new antiviral drugs that can be used to treat Covid-19. By bathing human lung cells in solutions made from these compounds and then infecting the cells with SARS-CoV-2, the experts discovered 26 compounds that completely reduced viral infection in the cells. These findings pave the way for the development of new Covid treatments made from natural sources.

“This interdisciplinary research team is unraveling the important possibilities of biodiversity and natural resources and discovering nature-based solutions for global health challenges such as Covid-19,” said study senior author François Jean, an associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at UBC.

“The advantage of these compounds is that they are targeting the cells, rather than the virus, blocking the virus from replicating and helping the cell to recover,” added co-first author, Jimena Pérez-Vargas, a research associate specializing in the same fields at UBC. “Human cells evolve more slowly than viruses, so these compounds could work against future variants and other viruses such as influenza if they use the same mechanisms.”

The scientists used a version of SARS-CoV-2 that causes cells to become fluorescent green when infected, together with a groundbreaking screening technique, in order to identify natural compounds which showed inhibition of Covid infection with low cell damage. 

The three most effective compounds were discovered in Canada: alotaketal C from a sea sponge collected in Howe Sound, British Columbia (B.C.), bafilomycin D from a marine bacterium from Barkley Sound, B.C., and holyrine A from marine bacteria from Newfoundland waters.

The analysis revealed that these compounds were effective against the Delta variant, as well as several Omicron variants. Moreover, they appeared to be as safe for human cells as current Covid-19 treatments. Since many of these existing treatments – such as those based on monoclonal antibodies – are ineffective against several Omicron sub-variants, there is an urgent need for new antivirals, which could be combined with other drugs for combating the new coronavirus. For instance, bafilomycin D appeared to be highly effective against the Omicron subvariant BA.2 when used in combination with a recently discovered antiviral (the molecule N-0385).

The scientists aim to test the newly discovered compounds in animal models over the next six months. “Our research is also paving the way for large-scale testing of natural product medicines that can block infection associated with other respiratory viruses of great concern in Canada and around the world, such as influenza A and RSV,” Professor Jean concluded.

The study is published in the journal Antiviral Research.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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