By Jenna Fowler
A global team of scientists led by UCSF has discovered drugs that block the coronavirus, paving the path for a possible treatment for COVID-19.
On Monday, May 18, that team’s leader, Dr. Nevan Krogan, joined The Chronicle’s Jason Fagone to answer questions live on Reddit.
Fagone has been covering Krogan and the UCSF lab’s work since March, when he first spotted their research on the website biorxiv.org.
“We’ve found something about this virus that I hope can help people,” Krogan told Fagone in an interview. In April, Krogan and his colleagues published their unprecedented findings in the journal Nature.
Here are a few edited highlights from the Q&A, which can be seen in full on Reddit here.
Reddit user: What is the realistic timescale for when the drugs you tested in the lab would be able to be used as actual treatments?
Dr. Nevan Krogan: The hope is, end of 2020, beginning of 2021.
We created this map of how the virus hijacks human cells. The map shows the key protein connections between the virus and the host. The map points toward various drugs and compounds that might stop the virus. Based on the map, there have been over 10 clinical trials that have been started to test possible drugs. There are a couple of drugs that we’re taking into the clinic right now. That takes a couple of months. We’re trying to get enough funding to do this. But if things look promising, if we can get this expedited quickly, then by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021, there could be something useful here —especially if you combine it with other drugs that look promising, like remdesivir.
I’m more optimistic, in general, than most people. It comes down to the fact that scientists have never worked together like this before. We’re uncovering things so quickly. Usually it takes years. We’re doing this essentially in weeks. So I’m hopeful, in every way.
We’re going to use the technology we have, in an integrated way, to understand this virus and come up with treatments. I believe that. I guess if you don’t believe it, it never happens, right? Here’s a hockey quote. Wayne Gretzky said, “You don’t score on 100% of the shots you don’t take.” And we’re taking a lot of shots. Never before has there been so many shots taken on a disease.
Reddit user: Does a solution to this problem include a universal vaccine?
Krogan: The problem here is that we don’t know what the next iteration of this virus is going to look like. If there is a vaccine, the faster it mutates, the less likely it is that the vaccine would work for the next round of this virus.
But our approach tries to take that into account. We’re looking at the host. We’re identifying the host proteins that the virus needs and trying to target those. Not many people are doing that. One of the advantages of that method is that it’s more likely to be a universal treatment —not just for coronavirus but for other viruses, as well. Because we’ve studied many viruses over the last several years, including dengue and Zika, and what we have found is a commonality: There are similar host proteins that are being targeted.
The hope would be you come up with a silver bullet that could work for other viruses as well, not just the coronavirus. And in our work on the coronavirus, we found two key pathways, or proteins, that are being hijacked by the virus. We need more data on this, but I really think that these are human proteins that are being hijacked by many different viruses. There was a genetic screen done years ago showing that when you deplete one of these proteins, for instance, it has a big impact on influenza, as well. So I’m hoping that some of the stuff we’ve discovered here will have far-reaching implications.
Reddit user: Can you describe a weakness in COVID-19? Or is it just a matter of manipulating our immune systems to not react to the virus?
Krogan: The virus’s weak point is that it cannot live by itself. To me, that’s the biggest weakness. And that weakness is related to how we’re combating this virus, by really understanding which proteins in our cells it needs and trying to interrupt those interactions. Let’s understand how the virus uses our machinery — our cells, the host cells — to infect and kill. Until we understand that, we’re still in the dark. And that’s true for all viruses, really.
Reddit user: Has collaboration among scientists increased and how are scientists sharing data to jointly find vaccines or cures?
Krogan: In the history of science, I think it’s safe to say, there’s never been such collaboration across different disciplines, across different institutions around the world, and between academia and pharmaceutical companies. At every level, collaboration is unprecedented.
In terms of sharing data, there are mechanisms in place where you can get out information as quickly as you can collect it. Also, we never filed for any intellectual property on anything that we found. We got the information out as quickly as possible. This type of open sharing in science has become very prevalent in this pandemic, which has been fantastic.
Reddit user: Tell me something hopeful.
Krogan: Well, this is a horrible tragedy. None of us have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. However, we know more about molecular biology than we ever have before. And with the internet, we have the infrastructure to communicate these results almost immediately. So if there was ever a time in which we could find a cure, I guess now is the time. And we and others have shown how fast we can move in a really unprecedented way when we work together.
Hopefully, in the future, scientists will be working in a much more effective way to come up with answers for all diseases, not just for viral pandemics, but for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or breast cancer. I think we’re going to find cures for other diseases, not just COVID-19, because of what we’ve learned during this pandemic. And that gives me hope.