More UBC researchers receive federal funding to study COVID-19

FIVE research teams at the University of British Columbia are collectively receiving $2.3 million in federal funding for research to help tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

The teams, led by UBC researchers Horacio Bach, Artem Cherkasov, Eric Jan, Jeffrey Joy and Dr. James Russell, are working on developing and implementing measures to rapidly detect, neutralize, manage, and reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

They join research teams led by Dr. Richard Lester, Dr. Srinivas Murthy, Natalie Prystajecky and Dr. Mel Krajden, and Yue Qian, who collectively received $2.8 million from the federal government for their research on COVID-19 announced March 6—bringing the total federal funding for UBC researchers working on COVID-19 to $5.1 million.

Countries around the world, including Canada, are working to contain the current outbreak of COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of more than 14,500 people worldwide, according to the March 23 update from the World Health Organization.

“We are very grateful for this additional investment through the federal government’s emergency research funding,” says Gail Murphy, vice-president, research and innovation at UBC. “This provides researchers at UBC and across the country with resources to gain critical insights into COVID-19 and help to develop treatments and prevent its spread.”

Testing antibodies to block COVID-19

Horacio Bach, adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases in the UBC faculty of medicine, is principal investigator of a team receiving $395,600. His team will be developing antibodies to neutralize and block the entrance of the virus into cells, and testing the efficacy of these antibodies in mice.

“Currently, there is no effective treatment or vaccine to control the virus, which in severe cases can cause respiratory failure and death,” says Bach, who is also the manager of the antibody engineering facility within the Immunity and Infectious Research Centre at Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. “We are hopeful that our research will lead to a treatment for patients and will help prevent transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Using ‘deep docking’ to rapidly identify anti-viral drug molecules

A team led by Artem Cherkasov—professor in the department of urologic sciences in the UBC faculty of medicine and senior scientist at the Vancouver Prostate Centre—is receiving $999,000.

Using “deep docking”—a virtual screening protocol enabled by artificial intelligence—the research team is applying an algorithm to search chemical space to identify compounds that could potentially inhibit the main enzyme critical to helping the SARS-CoV-2 virus to survive. SARS-CoV-2 is the term for the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

“Deep docking allows our team rapidly identify small anti-viral drug molecules in an extremely condensed timeframe,” he explains. “In fact, our first application of the algorithm this month enabled the screening of 1.3 billion commercially available compounds against the novel coronavirus virus in one week—a process that would have taken three years using conventional methods.”

Preparing for future emerging coronavirus outbreaks

A team led by Eric Jan, professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology with Chris Overall, professor in the Centre for Blood Research in the UBC faculty of medicine, is receiving $331,212.

The research team is working to identify protein targets of SARS and MERS coronavirus proteases. By engineering “decoy protein sequences,” they are hoping to block the ability of SARS and MERS coronaviruses to function, thereby inhibiting infection.

“Currently, the pathogenic mechanisms that lead to COVID-19 disease are not well understood,” says Jan. “We are hopeful that uncovering the proteins that are targeted by these coronaviruses will provide insights into the pathogenic mechanisms that lead to COVID-19 disease, which will hopefully help us prepare for future emerging coronavirus outbreaks as well.”

Studying the genomic evolution of the novel coronavirus

A team led by Jeffrey Joy, assistant professor in the UBC department of medicine, is receiving $315,000 to study the genomic evolution of SARS-CoV-2.

The research team will study the available SARS-COV-2 genomes and compare them with the genomes of other coronaviruses to determine common features and evaluate patterns of viral spread.

The team, which is collaborating with researchers at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control as well as other Canadian researchers, hope their research will help focus the response, control and elimination of the current, and future, coronavirus outbreaks.

“We are grateful to the federal government for this emergency funding, which is enabling researchers at UBC and across Canada to help find solutions to this urgent crisis,” says Joy, who is also a senior research scientist at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Repurposing blood-pressure and diabetes drugs for COVID-19

Dr. James Russell, professor in the UBC department of medicine, is receiving $255,970. His team is studying the safety and effectiveness of using a class of drugs, called ARBs, commonly prescribed to treat high blood pressure and diabetes, to improve outcomes for patients with COVID-19. Examples of ARBs include losartan, irbesartan, candesartan, telmisartan, valsartan, eprosartan, and alzilsartan.

Previous research has shown that these drugs can prevent lung injury in models of influenza pneumonia. Russell and his team hypothesize that ARBs could work for patients with COVID-19 as well because influenza and coronavirus bind to the same cell receptor in the lung.

The researchers will be evaluating these drugs in a study of 497 hospitalized adult patients who are or are not already on ARBs.

“We hope that we can further increase understanding of whether a class of drugs very commonly used for cardiovascular disease and diabetes can actually help Canadians and patients around the world, get better outcomes from COVID-19,” says Russell, who is also principal investigator at the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation (HLI) at St. Paul’s Hospital.

Russell also hopes his team’s research will uncover answers as to why COVID-19 seems to critically affect elderly people and why heart disease seems to be a significant risk factor for dying from COVID-19.

Data will be shared openly to inform the global research response

The federal government is providing the funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee through the New Frontiers in Research Fund, the International Development Research Centre, and Genome Canada.

The funding will support the researchers’ work over the next two years. Research findings and data produced as a result of the funding will be shared rapidly and openly (in line with the joint statement on sharing research data and findings relevant to the novel coronavirus outbreak) to inform the global public health response and to help save lives.