British-Israeli project aims to identify anti-Covid-19 drug in 'weeks'

Scientists are using new research techniques to speed up the drug discovery process



Israeli and British scientist are pioneering a revolutionary method of scientific research that could see a candidate for an anti-coronavirus drug emerge “within weeks”.

The teams at the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel and the Diamond Light Source laboratory in Oxfordshire, which are together pioneering an “open” and fast research method, outlined their current findings and research plans in a discussion hosted by Weizmann UK on Thursday.  

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Sharon Gould, the Executive Director of Weizmann UK, “we normally think of research as being a grindingly slow process, especially basic research, but in this case the race is really on to find a solution to stop this deadly virus”.

In a statement, the Weizmann Institute said: "By ramping up research production in partnership with other entities, the scientists may quickly pave the way to get an effective anti-Covid-19 drug candidate to patients— possibly in a matter of weeks."

The Weizmann Institute has been contributing to Israel’s coronavirus response. Its scientists have built two testing facilities, one of which will provide several thousand coronavirus tests and “will at least double the national number of tests that we are able to carry out per day.”  

“We have probably somewhere between 20 and 30 initiatives of talented and creative scientists,” said Roee Oziri, Weizmann Vice President for Public Affairs and Resource Development, “who are trying to push their research very quickly and look for remedies as soon as possible”.

The discussion formed part of a series of online talks relating to the effort to combat coronavirus hosted by the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Weizmann is seeking to “expedite drug discovery,” to a “short time-scale where we can have an effect on the status of the coronavirus,” he said.

Coronavirus, or Covid-19, is a virus that is made of a very small number of molecular bases, which encode around 30 proteins. Dr London’s team are seeking to develop an anti-viral drug which will target protease, one of the 30 proteins that are essential for the activity of the virus.

“We want to develop a cheap and safe antiviral faster than the typical anti-viral drug pipeline,” said Nir London, who is leading the team at Weizmann that is searching for a drug candidate.

“The traditional drug pipeline, from conception to FDA [Federal Drug Authority] approval, typically takes between ten to 15 years and between $1 and $2n. We have neither.”

The Weizmann Institute and its international partners are seeking to conduct multiple stages of its research concurrently and thereby shorten the research cycle.

“Our goal is to remove the barriers to traditionally drug discovery,” Dr London explained, “drug discovery goes through a linear, iterative design-made test cycle.

“Bureaucracy, intellectual property and market considerations also plague traditional drug discovery.”

Efforts to find vaccines against viruses in the past – such as Ebola – had previously been shelved because of they were found to be not financially viable. When scientists found the right approach to tackling Ebola, however, a vaccine was developed relatively rapidly. 

Weizmann has pioneered a form of research that is “completely open and shared in real time with the entire scientific community” and uses the “crowd-sourcing of global intelligence” to quickly generate an “unprecedented amount of preliminary data”.

Weizmann is working in close collaboration with the Diamond Light Source laboratory in Oxfordshire, which mapped the protease protein in February. “This is the basic entry point in discovering a drug,” said Prof London.

After further research looking at which compounds can bind themselves to protease, “the challenge is to take these very preliminary compounds that are able to inhibit this protein and turn them into an actual drug.”

“We want to do all of these tests in parallel, instead of following up on only a few tens of compounds, we aim to follow up on 500 to a 1,000 compounds in parallel and so drastically shorten the timescale,” he continued.

The team published the data that they had gathered online and issued a “call to arms to medical chemists around the world” inviting them to submit proposals for which compounds might be best placed to bind to the coronavirus.  “Within a few days, we got hundreds of proposals from medicinal chemists all around the world.”

The Weizmann Institute is now working with firms in California and Ukraine on the next steps.

Dr London said: “Our premise is that if there is a safe compound which shows efficacy against the virus, humanity needs to know about this fast.

“We are trying to do everything in parallel, no traditional funder would back such an effort, because it breaks all the barriers are so far held in the drug discovery field.

“The more funding we get for this project, the more compounds we can test in parallel and the shorter the timeframe to get a viable and effective drug candidate. We hope, our aim, is to get to something in the next few months.”

Frank von Delpf, of the Diamond Life Source laboratory, told the online audience of 233 that the international collaboration “was assembled in one week. It crystallised so quickly.

“The prospect of tapping into so many brains built up over years of investment, and this collective experience now being ont ap for something like Covid-19 is truly remarkable.”

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