Speed dating begins between COVID-19 and drug hopefuls

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2020

By Jessica Sinclair
Research Writer

In the fight against COVID-19, we may be sitting on the right weapons and not even know it. That’s the hope of a uOttawa-led three-lab team that just received rapid-response research funding from the Government of Canada. The scientists have a three-step plan to find the virus’s vulnerabilities, match them with a drug, then test their candidates in vivo.

The plan begins in the lab of Professor Marceline Côté, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Antiviral Therapies. Dr. Côté has worked on the Ebola virus and SARS, among others, and her specialty is studying emerging viruses to figure out how they are fusing with target cells and managing to get into them.

If her team can identify novel check point controls of the viral entry or fusion, they can take aim at this and target those pathways to block the virus from attaching to or entering cells. That’s where Dr. Patrick Giguère’s lab comes in.

“In my lab we are going to screen all kinds of different drugs to block the specific point of control that we have identified in Marceline’s lab,” says Dr. Giguère.

Dr. Giguère is the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Pharmacology and Drug Discovery, and his team will be screening existing medications to see whether a repurposed drug will do. From a vast library of candidates that have already been FDA approved—and still others that have proven safe for clinical trials—the team will test the effects using a pseudotype virus on human cell lines.

“If we don’t find any drugs that are efficient enough, we can do genetic screening,” says Dr. Giguère. “We have genome-wide libraries and could find a gene that is involved directly or indirectly in the mechanism of viral entry, then design biological or chemical drugs to block the viral entry or viral fusion.”

Once they identify any drug that seems to be functional in their system, they transfer it to Dr. Darwyn Kobasa at the University of Manitoba, who has access to a Biosafety Level 4 laboratory.  Dr. Kobasa can work with the novel coronavirus isolate to test uOttawa findings and see whether he can replicate the data. If he can, his team will start working with the drug in an adapted mouse model that is susceptible to the virus. This would be the first step on the road to clinical trials.

Five additional uOttawa researchers received grants as part of an earlier round of the Government of Canada’s rapid-response COVID-19 funding, including the Faculty of Medicine’s Drs. Marc-André Langlois, Ronald Labonté and Kumanan Wilson; Dr. Maxim Berezovski of the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences; and Dr. Patrick Fafard of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.


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Dr. Marceline Côté


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