VCU scientists studying cancer drug as COVID-19 treatment
AR-12 medication prevents coronavirus from replicating in cells
A group of scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center discovered that an experimental cancer drug keeps the virus that causes COVID-19 from infecting cells and replicating. Their findings were published Monday in the Biochemical Pharmacology journal and will be tested in a clinical trial at VCU Health.
AR-12 has been studied as an anti-cancer and antiviral drug in Massey researcher Paul Dent’s lab, and Dent and others have found that the oral medication is effective against Zika, mumps, measles, drug-resistant HIV and the flu, according to a news release from VCU. Laurence Booth of VCU and Jonathan O. Rayner of the University of South Alabama have studied the drug’s use in treating patients with COVID-19. They found it is “highly effective” against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID.
Dent’s team also found that people of non-European descent, particularly those of African ancestry, make one type of protein, while people of European descent make a variant. This difference may explain why African American people are more prone to serious cases of COVID-19, although Dent cautioned that the observation is not conclusive. “It provides a biomarker that could be evaluated to help explain why some people get more severe illness than others,” he said in a statement.
“AR-12 works in a unique way,” added Dent, the chair of Massey’s Cancer Cell Signaling research program and a professor at VCU’s biochemistry and molecular biology department. “Unlike any other antiviral drug, it inhibits cellular chaperones, which are proteins that are required to maintain the right 3D shape of viral proteins. The shape of the virus is critical to its ability to infect and replicate.”
Dr. Andrew Poklepovic, a medical oncologist and medical director of Massey’s Clinical Trials Office, is leading the effort to start a clinical trial. In prior trials for other diseases, the medication was “safe and tolerable” to patients, Poklepovic said in a statement. Unlike most other COVID-19 drugs, which are given intravenously, AR-12 is taken orally and could be used for outpatient therapy, he said.
The Food and Drug Administration must give its approval to test the drug on COVID patients, and VCU is in talks with a drug company to manufacture enough of the medication for the trial. C19 Therapeutics, a group of entrepreneurs gathered by Massey’s associate director for basic research, Said Sebti, has recently licensed AR-12 from VCU to raise funds in support of clinical trial sponsorship.
“We are working to submit the required information for FDA approvals, and we are also in discussions with a local pharmaceutical company to manufacture the drug for the trial,” Sebti said in a statement. “We are hopeful that AR-12 will emerge as a treatment option for patients suffering from COVID-19, ultimately saving lives and contributing to the global pandemic solution.”
Other potential treatments for COVID-19 have gotten accelerated approval for testing on humans through the Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program.
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