Now, with the vaccine roll-out underway, they are turning their attention to finding new COVID-19 treatments.
And while vaccines are the gold standard for controlling the pandemic, they alone can’t stop all COVID-19 infections.
COVID-19 affects more than just our lungs
At first, it was thought that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was a disease of the airways and lungs. That could then lead to life-threatening respiratory symptoms.
As the pandemic progressed, it has become clear that the virus can affect multiple organs. Including neural and cardiac tissues, sometimes causing widespread and permanent damage.
And so far, there are few medications available to treat severe COVID-19. These include the antiviral drug Remdesivir, the steroid Dexamethasone, and a few monoclonal antibody cocktails.
While vaccines do reduce the numbers of people experiencing severe symptoms and reduce transmission, we also need safe, effective and affordable treatments that specifically target SARS-CoV-2.
COVID-19 treatment that can inhibit viral replication, reduce symptoms and prevent long-COVID will be essential for our COVID-safe future.
Rapid screening platform for new COVID-19 treatments
A multi-disciplinary team, being led by Dr S. S. Vasan will be looking to repurpose drugs already approved for other diseases.
“A great strategy to find potential COVID-19 treatments is to repurpose drugs already approved for other diseases. However, the current methods to do this are expensive, time-consuming and not fit-for-purpose,” Dr Vasan said.
“We will be developing our screening platform with four types of clinically-relevant human tissues – lower respiratory tract, lung, neural, and cardiac – chosen due to the nature of how SARS-CoV-2 infects people.
“We will be deriving some of these from stem cells, which are special human cells that can develop into different cell types,” he said.
Last year, scientists at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP), showed how lab-grown airway cells have the potential to study respiratory viruses such as Influenza A. They have since published a paper that extends this approach to SARS-CoV-2.
Perfecting the system
We will tailor the new multi-tissue screening tool for infections by SARS-CoV-2 and all its variants of concern. This could help fast-track drugs for phase 2-3 human clinical trials and minimise the need for animal trials.
Working with our manufacturing colleagues, we will scale-up the multi-tissue system using quality control standardisation and automation techniques.
The novel high-throughput system will then be ready to rapidly screen existing drugs.
As a human cell-based technology, the pre-clinical trial results will more accurately mimic many of our own responses to infections.
The team will identify the responses that characterise progression of the disease. And then measure the effectiveness of the candidates undergoing testing to reverse disease effects.
They will now be comparing these types of readouts with data from humans and organoids. Such comparisons have proven useful in gaining insight into cellular pathways associated with SARS-CoV-2 replication and pathogenesis.
When might we see some results?
The project is currently getting underway. The team are hoping to evaluate three TGA or FDA approved drug candidates for suitability to progress to phase 2-3 human clinical trials within a year. It is a very ambitious timescale but that’s what our scientists are here to do.
The project called the ‘sySTEMs initiative’, including collaborators from Barwon Health and the University of NSW, received $998,355.93 from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) matched by $736k from CSIRO.