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In our weekly ‘follow-up’ column we feature a sequel to the best-read article of the past week. This week: An Austrian start-up discovers an already existing drug that could potentially be used against the coronavirus.

The number of people who have died from the coronavirus has now risen to over 800. The virus has thus claimed more victims than the SARS epidemic did in 2002 and 2003. At the moment, almost 35,000 people worldwide are infected with the coronavirus according to the World Health Organization.

Scientists all over the world are trying to find a cure for the virus. However, before there is any such cure, nothing else can be done except take precautions. “Make sure precautionary measures are taken so that the virus cannot spread any further,” Harald Wychgel of the RIVM explains. “In China you see that entire cities are on lock down. The number of infections in the EU is not that high, but it is important that we are vigilant about this. We’re taking precautions in order to prevent it from spreading.”

Virologists claim that it will take at least another year before a drug against the virus is released on the market. “Research is being done on vaccines where a weakened version of the virus is injected into the body. This causes the body to produce antibodies, which become active when the body becomes infected by the virus. Research is also underway to find a means of preventing the virus from spreading more widely. Just like the way HIV inhibitors work. But before such a drug is approved, a lot of time is wasted on trial and error,” Wychgel says.

Medication in the EU is reviewed by the European Medicines Agency. You can read more about that procedure here.

Alternate applications for established medicine

But what if you could tackle the coronavirus with an established drug that has already been approved for use in human beings? Which is exactly what Innophore does. They’re an Austrian company that originated as a spin-off from the University of Graz. They do what’s referred to as drug repurposing. As in when an established drug is applied in a new way. Which in itself is not so novel, says founder Christian Gruber. “Viagra was originally intended to regulate blood pressure. Thanks to repurposing, it has been given a whole new purpose.”

Gruber believes that the main advantage of this research method is the time it takes. “It is no longer necessary to conduct clinical trials as the drug has already been approved for use in humans.” But how do you discover other applications for established medicines? Gruber and his team developed a powerful search engine for this purpose. “Normally, a platform searches for a match between a compound (substance that has the potential to fight a disease) and the virus. But we’re not looking for a compound. We look, so to speak, inside the void where a compound binds to the virus. This is based on machine learning and we’ve been working on it since 2011.”

Gruber got involved when the genome sequence of the virus was catalogued in one of the three largest DNA databases in the world. “We decided right away that whatever happens, we don’t want to make a profit from this. This is because we have contacts in China too, it’s terrible what’s happening there right now.”

Worldwide attention

And that worked, because within a few hours the Gruber team came up with what are known as protease inhibitors (substances that prevent the virus from spreading further). “The virus has the same structure as the SARS virus. So we explored all the databases that we can access, looking for possible targets. These include HIV inhibitors, for example.”

The model that Gruber published was downloaded by researchers all over the world. “Incredible. Normally, a handful of researchers in that particular area look at that kind of model. Since we published the model, our inboxes have been overflowing. We’re getting proposals for research collaborations from universities and institutes that we would never have dreamed of before.”

An overview of where the model was downloaded.

Gruber is proud of this, yet he doesn’t want to take too much credit either. “We were the first to publicize it and share it with the rest of the world. But in China, scientists have been working behind the scenes for much longer, reviewing and testing our findings so that they can be quickly tested on people. But it’s great that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China are grateful to us and want to continue working with us.”

International consortium

Gruber is currently busy drafting a research proposal for the European Union. The EU has set aside an emergency budget of €10 million for research into the coronavirus. “We have scientists from all over the world – Oxford, Graz, Harvard, medical universities in Germany and the technical university in Wuhan. We’re working on the proposal together with a group of fifty to seventy people.”

In the proposal, the scientists want to link various research platforms and databases and provide them with an automated response platform. “Think of it as a kind of robot that immediately springs into action in the event of a new outbreak of a virus and searches for available medication that can also be used for that new virus. By joining forces, it should even be possible to find other compounds that may help prevent viruses. The coronavirus in this case.”

The sooner, the better

“The best case scenario is that the virus is already under control and we are able to focus on other diseases or viruses,” Gruber says. “We also want to ensure that all of the information is always available. Luckily it has never happened before – but what if an outbreak prevents you from being able to access that information? We want to have secure cloud storage. And we need to make sure that all available platforms can bundle information in a worthwhile way. I am very excited about this project. When it gets off the ground we will be using the most advanced technology available, a dream come true for us.”

However, the priority right now is to contain the coronavirus. “When I read the reports about cruise ships where people have been infected, I get the shivers. Imagine being aboard one of those ships. I can very well imagine how frightened passengers are. That’s why it’s so important to have an automated search engine that will quickly come up with viable options. I’m not a virologist and I don’t have much to say about epidemics, but the sooner resources are available to contain viruses, the better.”