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‘Science will beat this virus:’ La Jolla doctor details discovery of 30 potential coronavirus treatments

Dr. Sumit Chanda of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla is part of a team that recently discovered 30 potential treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Dr. Sumit Chanda of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla is part of a team that recently discovered 30 potential treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
(Courtesy)

A local research institute says it has discovered 30 promising potential treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus and aims to have them available for trial soon.

“The work began in January,” said Dr. Sumit Chanda, director of the immunity and pathogenesis program at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla. “It seemed the new coronavirus in China had the potential to become a global pandemic and we wanted to find ways to help people.”

Chanda and his team at Sanford Burnham Prebys, a nonprofit private research center, and Calibr, the drug-discovery arm of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, looked at more than 12,000 known drugs, found 300 “promising” ones and “drilled the 300 down and confirmed 30 of them independently.”

Starting with the 12,000 drugs, all of which are approved or have been tested extensively for safety, was important because “we needed something quickly,” Chanda said. “It typically takes 10 to 17 years to build a drug from inception to market. We needed to do something a lot faster, so if we could take known drugs and look to see if they had some level of anti-viral activity against SARS-CoV-2 [the current coronavirus], these could be repurposed.”

The pace of the testing is similar to the process for testing remdesivir, a drug developed by pharmaceutical company Gilead that is now in clinical trials as a potential treatment for the coronavirus. On May 1, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed emergency use of remdesivir.

“I’m encouraged by the clinical data trial [of remdesivir],” Chanda said. “There’s more data that needs to be released, but initial indications are we have at least one thing that can control the virus in people. It’s a good start.”

Chanda’s lab is busy looking at a “library of compounds” and their ability to “knock down the virus’s ability to replicate,” he said. “Of [the confirmed 30], six are really promising based on their known characteristics. All 30, however, merit attention.”

As “there’s so little known about the biology of the virus because it’s new, we wanted to go broad and looked at almost all the known drugs,” Chanda said. “We found drugs useful for arthritis, ulcers, cholesterol … and let the virus do the talking. We mixed the virus with cells and monitored the impact of the drug on the ability of the virus to grow.”

UC San Diego Health has launched a clinical trial to determine whether tocilizumab, a drug marketed as Actemra to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory disorders, might have therapeutic value for COVID-19 patients with serious lung damage from coronavirus infections.

Chanda said it’s important to continue to study multiple drugs, as “we think this virus is going to require a cocktail of drugs,” much like other viruses such as HIV and those that cause hepatitis. “Each drug has a side effect, and if you do a cocktail, you can lower the dosage.”

Discovering a cocktail will be important for remdesivir, Chanda said, as “the amount of remdesivir we have in the world is not going to be enough to treat everybody.”

Additionally, “viruses like to mutate, so these viruses will develop resistance if you throw a single drug at it. If you have a cocktail of compounds, the virus doesn’t have the dexterity to come up with mutations that allow it to escape.”

A cocktail treatment “would move us closer and closer toward a cure,” he said.

Dr. Sumit Chanda and Dr. Laura Martin-Sancho practice social distancing in their lab at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla.
(Courtesy)

With the discovery of the 30 potential treatments, Chanda said the team is “going back now to figure out why they [work]. We’re also learning about the virus, which is good going forward to develop vaccines and next-generation therapies. We really want to understand what this virus is doing and how it’s doing it.”

Chanda said the next steps involve “going from these lab tests to animal models and then into human clinical trials. Because of the current situation, all these activities are being expedited. Years are being condensed into months. If we see success in a couple more situations, we’ll be able to approach the FDA.”

Chanda hopes the drug treatments are ready “for deployment to coincide with what we anticipate will be a second wave of this pandemic coming likely in late October.”

“Science will beat this virus,” Chanda said, “but we need people to buy us time. Continue social distancing so we can turn this virus from a global emergency into something we can manage until a vaccine becomes available.”

The Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute will present Chanda and Dr. Evan Snyder, director of the institute’s center for stem cells and regenerative medicine, in an hour-long webinar at 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 6. Chanda and Snyder will discuss the state of the pandemic, its management and what scientists are doing about it in terms of research. They also will answer viewer questions. Submit questions in advance at bit.ly/3bT8HWE and view the webinar at bit.ly/prebyswebinar. ◆