Researchers synthesize peptoids at Berkeley Lab to combat viruses

Researchers Annelise E. Barron and Gill Diamond discovered that certain peptoids, which are biomimetic molecules, could be used to fight viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2.

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A team of researchers discovered that molecules called peptoids, which they synthesized at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, or the Berkeley Lab, can be used to fight a variety of viruses.

Peptoids are biomimetic molecules, meaning that they mimic the body’s natural proteins but are themselves not natural, according to Annelise E. Barron, researcher and Stanford University bioengineering professor. Barron called the Molecular Foundry, a research facility of the Berkeley Lab where the peptoids were synthesized, “a really fantastic facility.”

The research team, led by Barron and Gill Diamond, a professor in the department of oral immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Louisville, published a study presenting their discoveries in March.

Barron said she first had the idea to develop antimicrobial peptoids in 1997 when she joined the faculty at Northwestern University. She began her collaboration with Diamond a few years ago when he suggested that they test her peptoids against viruses such as herpes simplex virus 1, or HSV-1, Diamond said.

​​The researchers found that many of the peptoids Barron synthesized had potent activity against HSV-1, an enveloped virus, and that they worked by targeting and disrupting the membrane, rendering the virus inactive, according to Diamond.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team had the idea to test the peptoids against SARS-CoV-2, which is also an enveloped virus, and they discovered that the molecules had the same effect.

“We would like to be able to eventually develop these as pan-antiviral agents, things that can kill numerous different viruses, possibly flu, which is another enveloped virus, as well as other dangerous viruses out there that are enveloped,” Diamond said.

The team’s experiments confirmed their hypothesis that both a higher concentration of the peptoids and longer treatment time are more effective against viruses, Barron noted.

Additionally, researchers discovered a nearly perfect rate of host cell survival up to a peptoid concentration, which is at least 10 times that of which inactivates viruses, according to Barron.

This means that these biomimetic compounds can target viruses, bacteria, fungi and other pathogens without harming human cells, which the researchers attribute to the naturally protective internal structure of the cells.

“In the past, researchers designed drugs that target specific enzymes that a virus needs to replicate,” Barron said. “The problem with this approach is that if you target a single enzyme with a drug, then the virus can evolve the enzyme so that it no longer works.”

According to Barron, the goal is to avoid the development of resistance to drugs, which can result in the creation of mutant viruses, and to target multiple viruses with a similar mechanism.

Barron said she has already founded a company to commercialize these compounds: Maxwell Biosciences.

“If I do all this research but I don’t start a company, nobody will ever use it,” Barron said. “If I publish a scientific paper, some other scientists will read it, but it’ll stop there. So, you’ve got to translate your discoveries.”

Contact Kira Rao-Poolla at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kiraraopoolla.

Correction(s):
A previous photo caption for this article this article incorrectly stated that the researchers discovered peptoids. In fact, the researchers discovered that certain peptoids could be used to combat viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.