Virus are elusive foes. It seems like every year there’s a new one in the news – Ebola recently and now Zika – not to mention the virus that cause the flu or common cold. Despite the considerable threat (and sometimes just annoyance) from viruses, there’s remarkably little anyone can do about them.
They are small, but wily.
With that history in mind, microbiologist Jeffrey Glenn, MD, PhD, thought a better approach would be to find a way of helping our cells help themselves. Working with Stanford ChEM-H, he created a center called ViRX@Stanford dedicated to finding therapies that would allow our cells to fight a variety of viruses rather than trying to kill off one virus at a time.
Working with that Glenn’s center, a group of scientists led by chemist Chaitan Khosla, PhD, and geneticist Michael Bassik, PhD, unearthed a previously discarded drug, figured out how it fought viruses, then improved on it. They published their results March 28 in Nature Chemical Biology.
In their paper, they show that the drug helps human cells in a lab dish fight off the dengue virus and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, and the authors say it could be effective against a wide range of other viruses that use RNA instead of DNA as their genetic code, including both Ebola and Zika.
Rather than just showing that an old drug was somewhat effective, they were able to improve on it. Chemistry graduate student Richard Deans told me, “The genome-wide screen carried out in the Bassik lab was really powerful, because it gave us insights into future research strategies. I think going forward his strategy will be much more heavily used.”
The team worked out a strategy based on what they’d learned to make the drug less harmful to the human cells. They also got insights into a second drug that might work in combination with the first drug to create an even more effective therapy.
In my story about the work I wrote about the scientists’ next steps:
Khosla said they plan to test the drug combination against many different RNA viruses to learn which it fights most effectively. If the drug combination is successful in animals, they hope it might become among the first broad antiviral strategies for human disease.