Treating COVID-19 without a vaccine: Scientists receive funding to develop novel antiviral drug

A multi-institutional partnership led by Monash University and Pennsylvania State University has received support to develop a novel antiviral drug to treat COVID-related infection in the form of a COVID-19 protease inhibitor, which could reduce the impact of infection and minimise the need for social distancing in public spaces.

Effective antiviral treatments for HIV and Hepatitis C were developed by targeting viral proteases - based on this precedent, the team of researchers determined that the COVID-19 main protease is a key therapeutic target that is feasible to drug.


Professor Jonathan Baell from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS) and Dr Arun Konagurthu from the Faculty of Information Technology, Department of Data Science and Artificial Science (DSAI) are leading the Australian team alongside Professor Arthur Lesk (Penn State), having recently received funding from the Therapeutic Innovation Australia Pipeline Accelerator program to propel the research to the next stage.

Dr Konagurthu, who is directing the data science component of the program, says the recently released structures of 3CL protease of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus behind the pandemic) will provide insights on ways to target and inhibit its function, and thus pave a path forward for a new therapeutic approach.

“We know that the protease has an active site which could bind small molecules. This provides us with the potential to design small molecules that could hinder the protease, and the viral replication process, thus stopping the virus from multiplying,” he said.

“In the absence of an approved vaccine against COVID-19, researchers globally have been working to identify novel treatments of  the virus. Whilst several drugs are being tested as repurposed treatments, our team will be combining our expertise in computational and structural biology/bioinformatics and drug development with the goal to develop a new medication.”

Professor Baell, Director of the Australian Translational Medicinal Chemistry Facility at MIPS, says the prospect of a new drug for COVID-19 presents an exciting new frontier in not only treating the virus but the broader societal impact too.

“To cure COVID infection or even reduce it to a threat to morbidity would represent an enormous breakthrough and will be of benefit to global human and societal health and stability,” Professor Baell says.

“As there is no known human version of main protease which makes it an ideal antiviral target, selectively disrupting the viral self-replication machinery without causing any harm to the human host represents an attractive therapeutic approach.”

Developing a novel drug is a long, expensive process and given the worldwide collaborative effort to develop a vaccine against the deadly virus, it is likely that an effective vaccine will be the first step in globally protecting people from COVID-19.

Professor Baell says: “When it comes to treating COVID-19, ideally what we want to see is medicines and vaccines residing side by side. Whilst a vaccine is urgently needed to protect people and build immunity, vaccines are not always 100 per cent effective and vaccination rates can vary per country, thus creating an earnest need for prescribed medications to beat the novel coronavirus.”

Therapeutic Innovation Australia manages funding from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy program funded by the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment. The Accelerator initiative, which is currently open for applications, enables researcher access to facilities around the country, including ATMCF.

Funding for this project has been awarded to the ATMCF, DSAI, University of Queensland and Pennsylvania State University. The key computational and structural bioinformatics capabilities are being led by Dr Arun Konagurthu (DSAI) and Professor Arthur Lesk (Penn State), in collaboration with Dr Lloyd Allison, Professor Maria Garcia de la Banda, Professor Peter Stuckey, all also key members of DSAI and Professor David Abramson from the University of Queensland. The ATMCF, through Director Professor Jonathan Baell, are leading the drug development aspect of this multi-institutional partnership.

About the Australian Translational Medicinal Chemistry Facility (ATMCF)
The ATMCF is a national drug discovery capability that applies medicinal chemistry expertise to translate biomedical research towards clinical relevance. Facilitated by Therapeutic Innovation Australia (TIA), and based at The Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), Parkville, the ATMCF collaborates with researchers to identify and synthesize bioactive compounds (small molecules) which are optimized through medicinal chemistry against a range of potency, selectivity and pharmacokinetic criteria.

About Monash University’s Department of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (DSAI) Data science is transforming business, industry, government, social interaction and research. The Department of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, based at Monash University’s Clayton campus, is at the forefront of research into the technologies that underpin this revolution. DSAI is unlocking the potential of large data sets across a wide range of applications, facilitating better health outcomes for the community and helping businesses make more informed decisions for the future.

Contact: Kate Carthew

Phone: 0438 674814