Fighting COVID-19 with Foundational Sciences from the Classroom

April 20, 2020

covid cell

The University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy is joining research forces with the Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Biomedical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, and the Medical School, to use a novel molecular strategy to fight COVID-19. Dave Ferguson, professor of medicinal chemistry and a member of the research team, is excited by what the work means for the response to this and future outbreaks, and for what it means for College of Pharmacy students.

“The COVID-19 virus, like most viruses, hijacks a person’s cellular machinery,” said Ferguson. “We’re working to engineer protein carriers that hone in on a specific target on the cell surface that controls viral entry. By studding the protein with a drug we block infection before it begins, effectively disarming the virus.” 

On their surface, cells express proteases, or enzymes that process proteins, including those of viral origin. There just happens to be one protease that is essential for viral infectivity. By developing a targeted drug delivery system that both recognizes this protease and locks on through drug binding, it   creates what Ferguson calls a “fireman’s grip” for protection. “By doing this, the virus has no way of replicating and can’t survive.”

This form of treatment has several advantages in that it uses established drugs that target host enzymes that are not prone to develop drug resistance. This means it should work even after viral mutations.  In addition, it could potentially be given to people before they get sick or to those who are high-risk. If the technology works, there would be the ability to attach different kinds of drugs to the carriers to target other viruses or emerging pathogens in the future. 

Ferguson sees the possibilities work like this presents for students in the College of Pharmacy. “The science I am bringing to the table as part of this research team is the same foundational science I am teaching in the classroom. It is rare that we can take something out of the classroom and have it directly apply to the development of an advanced therapeutic strategy to solve a problem this rapidly. 

“It’s great to know that basic science is still driving discovery. And within our learning environment, students are getting a foundation they can use to solve emerging problems for the rest of their lives.” 

The research team, composed of Ferguson; Ben Hackel, chemical engineering and materials science; Jonathan Sachs, biomedical engineering; and Alon Herschhorn, infectious diseases, has applied for NIH rapid funding and Ferguson expects to have some of the research in publication in the very near future.

“We are part of the global effort. We need to secure funding and disseminate quickly so that the collective good of science can be served.