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Treatment for COVID-19 will target the body, not the virus

Malaria research could save millions of dollars and several years worth of drug trials to wipe out COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

Researchers at RMIT University are exploring the potential of repurposing treatments that are already available for malaria, cancer, and other conditions to fast-track better drugs that can save lives.

The findings suggest that targeting the human body, rather than a pathogen itself, may be the most effective route for treating infectious pathogens.

The team discovered that the parasites which cause malaria are heavily dependent on enzymes in red blood cells. Here, the parasites hide and multiply. Drugs known as protein kinases have been developed to inactivate the human enzymes. According to the researchers, this type of treatment is highly effective in killing the parasite and represents an alternative to drugs that target the parasite itself.

Study lead author Dr. Jack Adderley said the analysis pinpoints the host cell enzymes that are activated during infection, and exposes new points of reliance of the parasite on its human host.

“This approach has the potential to considerably reduce the cost and accelerate the deployment of new and urgently needed antimalarials,” said Dr. Adderley.

“These host enzymes are in many instances the same as those activated in cancer cells, so we can now jump on the back of existing cancer drug discovery and look to repurpose a drug that is already available or close to completion of the drug development process.”

Beyond these benefits of repurposing drugs, the approach could reduce the emergence of drug resistance.  

Study senior author Christian Doerig said the findings were exciting, as drug resistance is one of the biggest challenges in modern healthcare, not only in the case of malaria, but with most infectious agents, including a large number of highly pathogenic bacterial species.

“We are at risk of returning to the pre-antibiotic era if we don’t solve this resistance problem, which constitutes a clear and present danger for global public health. We need innovative ways to address this issue,” said Doerig.

“By targeting the host and not the pathogen itself, we remove the possibility for the pathogen to rapidly become resistant by mutating the target of the drug, as the target is made by the human host, not the pathogen.”

The treatment approach shows so much promise that it has received government funding for its potential application in the fight against COVID-19. The researchers will now collaborate with the Doherty Institute to investigate potential treatments.

Professor Peter Revill is a senior medical scientist at the Doherty Institute and an expert in Hepatitis B research. He said the approach developed by the RMIT team is truly exciting.

“This has proven successful for other human pathogens including malaria and Hepatitis C virus, and there are now very real prospects to use it to discover novel drug targets for Hepatitis B and COVID-19,” said Professor Revill.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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