Researchers at Fanshawe College are studying ways to stop the coronavirus’s spread in the body and reduce its inflammatory response – findings that could translate into an effective treatment for COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by SARS-CoV-2.
Abdulla Mahboob, PhD, manager at Fanshawe’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation in Biotechnology (CARIB) labs, is heading a team investigating three separate projects, all funded by the Niagara College-led Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI) through Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) contributions.
In the first project, CARIB experts, along with industry partner KGK Science in London, Ont., have developed a custom peptide inhibitor that targets both the actual viral replication, and the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) associated with COVID-19. It is unique in that most current therapies target either one or the other. This breakthrough could help other researchers understand one possible way to hinder the viral replication and effectively stop the spread of COVID-19 inside a patient’s body.
“When a virus enters the body, its ability to produce devastating effects is due to its capacity to make copies of itself while evading the body’s immune system,” said Mahboob. “In coronaviruses, certain proteins are required to bind together to make the viral genetic material look more like the cell’s, hence evading the protective mechanisms that have evolved to recognize unusual genetic materials.”
By stopping the proteins from binding together, the virus can be exposed to the cell’s immunity, which will prevent the spread of the virus itself in the patient, added Mahboob.
Testing on peptide inhibitors is currently being completed against cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 at a third-party Biosafety Level 3 facility.
Research teams at Fanshawe are also working on two additional studies that may benefit patients with COVID-19. Scientists are exploring the ability to manufacture potential therapeutics on a large scale, and a third study involves examining cannabis-extract therapies that could treat blood clots and inflammation that occur in life-threatening COVID-19 cases.
For the therapeutics research, Mahboob’s team has been able to demonstrate that protein therapeutics made by their industry partner SGB (Solar Grants Biotechnology) in plants can reduce the inflammatory response associated with SARS-CoV-2.
“The proteins are strong anti-inflammatory agents against the ARDS associated with COVID-19,” said Mahboob.
As a result of both the peptide inhibitor and therapeutics projects, the research team has also engineered a method to test the efficacy of the peptides without using the full virus by developing a replicon system.
“The implication is that we have a copy of the virus that replicates inside cells the same way as the full virus, but is not a Biosafety Level 3 hazard, so many more labs can now examine the kinetics of replication, inhibition by potential drug treatments,” he said. “It is quite exciting … and perhaps the most significant achievement we have made, as it will allow the examination of the viral replication and inhibition by using a very simple assay.”
Further to that, in studying cannabis-extract therapies with partner Green Leaf, the research team has been able to isolate the cannabinoids using a large-scale chromatography system and are progressing in testing their effects.
Inside the CARIB Labs, aside from Mahboob, Pieter Anborgh, PhD, has conducted work on testing proteins and short peptides on mammalian cells and Omar Zoaroob is heading the efforts on the isolation of cannabinoids. The researchers are helped by two co-op students.
Since 2016, FedDev Ontario has invested more $20 million in support of SONAMI’s growth efforts in the manufacturing innovation ecosystem. Thanks to flexibilities introduced by FedDev Ontario in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, SONAMI and its member institutions have been able to harness their expertise and pivot their operations to respond to the COVID-19 crisis by building a supply of essential equipment, products and conduct research into therapeutics for Canadians.
All seven of SONAMI’s academic partners are taking action to combat the health crisis, including Niagara, Conestoga, Fanshawe, Lambton, Mohawk and Sheridan colleges, and McMaster University.
To see more projects at Fanshawe, visit their Centre for Research and Innovation.