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Exploring Drug Repurposing for COVID-19 Treatment

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Drug screening-High throughput robot
Caption: Robotic technology screening existing drugs for new purposes. Credit: Scripps Research

It usually takes more than a decade to develop a safe, effective anti-viral therapy. But, when it comes to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), we don’t have that kind of time. One way to speed the process may be to put some old drugs to work against this new disease threat. This is generally referred to as “drug repurposing.”

NIH has been doing everything possible to encourage screens of existing drugs that have been shown safe for human use. In a recent NIH-funded study in the journal Nature, researchers screened a chemical “library” that contained nearly 12,000 existing drug compounds for their potential activity against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 [1]. The results? In tests in both non-human primate and human cell lines grown in laboratory conditions, 21 of these existing drugs showed potential for repurposing to thwart the novel coronavirus—13 of them at doses that likely could be safely given to people. The majority of these drugs have been tested in clinical trials for use in HIV, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and other conditions.

These latest findings come from an international team led by Sumit Chanda, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, La Jolla, CA. The researchers took advantage of a small-molecule drug library called ReFRAME [2], which was created in 2018 by Calibr, a non-profit drug discovery division of Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA.

In collaboration with Yuen Kwok-Yung’s team at the University of Hong Kong, the researchers first developed a high-throughput method that enabled them to screen rapidly each of the 11,987 drug compounds in the ReFRAME library for their potential to block SARS-CoV-2 in cells grown in the lab. The first round of testing narrowed the list of possible COVID-19 drugs to about 300. Next, using lower concentrations of the drugs in cells exposed to a second strain of SARS-CoV-2, they further narrowed the list to 100 compounds that could reliably limit growth of the coronavirus by at least 40 percent.

Generally speaking, an effective anti-viral drug is expected to show greater activity as its concentration is increased. So, Chanda’s team then tested those 100 drugs for evidence of such a dose-response relationship. Twenty-one of them passed this test. This group included remdesivir, a drug originally developed for Ebola virus disease and recently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use in the treatment of COVID-19. Remdesivir could now be considered a positive control.

These findings raised another intriguing question: Could any of the other drugs with a dose-response relationship work well in combination with remdesivir to block SARS-CoV-2 infection? Indeed, the researchers found that four of them could.

Further study showed that some of the most promising drugs on the list reduced the number of SARS-CoV-2 infected cells by 65 to 85 percent. The most potent of these was apilimod, a drug that has been evaluated in clinical trials for treating Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune conditions. Apilimod is now being evaluated in the clinic for its ability to prevent the progression of COVID-19. Another potential antiviral to emerge from the study is clofazimine, a 70-year old FDA-approved drug that is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines for the treatment of leprosy.

Overall, the findings suggest that there may be quite a few existing drugs and/or experimental drugs fairly far along in the development pipeline that have potential to be repurposed for treating COVID-19. What’s more, some of them might also work well in combination with remdesivir, or perhaps other drugs, as treatment “cocktails,” such as those used to successfully treat HIV and hepatitis C.

This is just one of a wide variety of drug screening efforts that are underway, using different libraries and different assays to detect activity against SARS-CoV-2. The NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has established an open data portal to collect all of these data as quickly and openly as possible. As NIH continues its efforts to use the power of science to end the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critically important that we explore as many avenues as possible for developing diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.


[1] Discovery of SARS-CoV-2 antiviral drugs through large-scale compound repurposing. Riva L, Yuan S, Yin X, et al. Nature. 2020 Jul 24 [published online ahead of print]

[2] The ReFRAME library as a comprehensive drug repurposing library and its application to the treatment of cryptosporidiosis. Janes J, Young ME, Chen E, et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2018;115(42):10750-10755.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

ReFRAMEdb (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)

The Chanda Lab (Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Yuen Kwok-Yung (University of Hong Kong)

OpenData|Covid-19 (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Creative Minds: Exploring the Role of Immunity in Hypertension

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Meena Madhur

Meena Madhur / Credit: John Russell

If Meena Madhur is correct, people with hypertension will one day pay as much attention to their immune cell profiles as their blood pressure readings. A physician-researcher at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Madhur is one of a growing number of scientists who thinks the immune system contributes to—or perhaps even triggers—hypertension, which increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, and other serious health problems.

About one of every three adult Americans currently have hypertension, yet a surprising number don’t know they have it and less than half have their high blood pressure under control—leading many health experts to refer to the condition as a “silent killer”[1,2]. For many folks, blood pressure control can be achieved through lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, exercising, limiting salt intake, and taking blood pressure medicines prescribed by their health-care provider. Unfortunately, such measures don’t work for everyone, and some people continue to suffer damage to their kidneys and blood vessels from poorly controlled hypertension.

Madhur wants to know whether the immune system might be playing a role, and whether this might hold some clues for developing new, more targeted ways of treating high blood pressure. To get such answers, this practicing cardiologist will use her 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to conduct sophisticated, single-cell analyses of the immune systems of people with and without hypertension. Her goal is to produce the most comprehensive catalog to date of which human immune cells might be involved in hypertension.

A New Tool in the Toolbox: New Method Traces Free-Floating DNA Back to Its Source

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Caption: DNA (blue) loops around nucleosomes (gray) and is bound by transcription factors (red), proteins that switch genes on and off and act in a tissue-specific manner. When cells die, enzymes (scissors) chop up areas between the nucleosomes and transcription factors, releasing DNA fragments in unique patterns. By gathering the released DNA fragments in blood, researchers can tell which types of cells produced them.
Credit: Shendure Lab/University of Washington

When cells die, scissor-like enzymes snip their DNA into tiny fragments that leak into the bloodstream and other bodily fluids. Researchers have been busy in recent years working on ways to collect these free-floating bits of DNA and explore their potential use in clinical care.

These approaches, sometimes referred to as “liquid biopsies,” hinge on the ability to distinguish specific DNA fragments from the body’s normal background of “cell-free” DNA, most of which comes from dying white blood cells. Seeking other sources for cell-free DNA in particular situations is beginning to bear fruit, however. Current applications include: 1) a test in maternal blood to look for DNA from the fetus (actually from the fetal component of the placenta), which provides a means of detecting a possible genetic abnormality; 2) a test in a cancer patient’s blood to look for cancer-specific mutations, as a way of assessing response to treatment or early signs of relapse; and 3) a test in an organ transplant recipient, where increasing abundance of DNA fragments from the donor can be an early sign of rejection.

But recent proposals have been floated about looking for cell-free DNA in healthy individuals, as an early sign of some health problems. Suppose something was found—how could you know the source? Now a team of NIH-funded researchers has devised a new method that uses distinctive features of DNA packaging to provide an additional layer of information about the origins of free-floating DNA, vastly expanding the potential uses for such tests [1].

Introducing AMP: The Accelerating Medicines Partnership

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Pie charts showing AMP targets reducing failures due to efficacy

Caption: Lack of efficacy currently accounts for more than half of all drug failures in Phase II clinical studies (left). If AMP’s target validation efforts improve efficacy by 90% (right), the success rate will rise significantly.

It would seem like there’s never been a better time for drug development. Recent advances in genomics, proteomics, imaging, and other technologies have led to the discovery of more than a thousand risk factors for common diseases—biological changes that ought to hold promise as targets for drugs.

But this deluge of new opportunities has to be put in context: drug development is a terribly difficult business. To the dismay of researchers, drug companies, and patients alike, the vast majority of drugs entering the development pipeline fall by the wayside. The most distressing failures occur when a drug is found to be ineffective in the later stages of development—in Phase II or Phase III clinical studies—after years of work and millions of dollars have already been spent [1]. Why is this happening? One major reason is that we’re not selecting the right biological changes to target from the start.

Meet Alex—Before and After NIH Clinical Trial

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Photo of an infant with mottled skin adjacent to a photo of young man with clear skin being examined by a female doctor.

Caption: Alex, then and now, with Dr. Goldbach-Mansky
Credit: Kate Barton and Susan Bettendorf (NIH)

Alex Barton recently turned 17. That’s incredible because Alex was born with a rare, often fatal genetic disease and wasn’t expected to reach his teenage years.

When Alex was born, he looked like he’d been dipped in boiling water: his skin was bright red and blistered. He spent most of his time sleeping. When awake, he screamed in agony from headaches, joint pain, and rashes. After a torturous 14 months, a rheumatologist told his mother that Alex suffered from Neonatal-Onset Multisystem Inflammatory Disease (NOMID). The doctor showed her a brief and scary paragraph in a medical text. Kate Barton, Alex’s mother, admitted that it “knocked her over like a freight train.”

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