UC Berkeley researchers find new drug therapies to treat COVID-19

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Livia Yamashiro/Courtesy
Because it is likely that vaccines will not be widely available for several months, it is important that there are other treatments that will work against COVID-19 in the meantime, according to campus postdoctoral researcher Scott Biering. While remdesivir, a medication that has been given emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration, could help treat patients with COVID-19, it is not currently effective in humans.

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Amid increasing campus cases of COVID-19, UC Berkeley researchers have collaborated in a biosafety level three facility, or BSL-3, to find therapeutics that would help in treating the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Remdesivir, which was granted emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is a medication used to help treat patients that have contracted COVID-19, but it currently does not work well in humans, according to Julia Schaletzky, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Henry Wheeler Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases and founder of the Drug Discovery Center. Schaletzky said she began research alongside campus public health associate professor Sarah Stanley into drug therapies that could augment the effect of remdesivir. 

“It was clear to me that if a drug was to be approved, remdesivir would be approved for COVID-19 early in pandemic and I thought, ‘What can we do to find therapies that are antiviral?’ ” Schaletzky said.

Vaccines may not be widely available for several months, according to campus postdoctoral researcher Scott Biering. He emphasized the importance of having other treatments that will work against COVID-19 to bridge the gap in that time.

Funding for this research was difficult to find, according to Schaletzky. She said potential sponsors believed more established labs could employ similar techniques effectively. Schaletzky added, however, she was able to find private donors.

The labs screened thousands of drugs through combinatorial high-throughput screening and were looking for drugs that were synergistic with remdesivir, according to Biering. Researchers found about 23 drugs that were synergistic with remdesivir and enhanced its effect, Biering added.

“We found a whole list of compounds that are active with remdesivir, and it was surprising and very exciting,” Schaletzky said.

Lívia Yamashiro, a postdoctoral researcher working with Stanley, said their screening provided evidence that hepatitis C drugs combined with remdesivir can greatly increase the efficacy and potency of potential treatments.

The combination drug therapy has not yet been approved by the FDA as a treatment for COVID-19 as the results are preliminary and still need clinical trials, according to Yamashiro.

“The individual drugs have already been FDA-approved for various diseases (the ones we focus on are for Hep C patients), which means there will be plenty of pre-existing clinical data for these compounds,” Xammy Nguyenla, a staff research associate in the Stanley lab, said in an email.

Schaletszky added that drug therapies are needed for people who are unable to get vaccinated — such as immunocompromised individuals — and there are no significant studies in pediatrics on existing vaccines.

The effect of these drug therapies has not yet been tested against the most recent strains, and conclusions can’t be made about its efficacy, according to Yamashiro.

“Combination therapy has a very good track record on working off of different forms in the same overarching virus strain,” Schaletzky said.

In the future, Schaletzky said the labs hope to pursue animal experiments with successful results in rodents in particular. Nguyenla said he hopes positive results in the animal experiments will lead to clinical trials in patients.


Contact Shylie Ati at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shylieati.