Case Western Reserve University professor working with team to develop COVID-19 antiviral

Posted at 1:30 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 13:30:16-04

CLEVELAND — As scientists and medical researchers around the world work on ways to fight COVID-19, a scientist from right here in Cleveland is doing the same—working with a team of scientists to develop an antiviral to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Case Western Reserve University chemistry professor Blanton Tolbert is working with research partners from Duke University and Rutgers University to create the COVID-19 antiviral.

The team has had previous success in developing antivirals, laying the groundwork to create novel antivirals against Enterovirus 71 (EV71), an RNA virus similar to the novel coronavirus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease.

Tolbert and his team have expanded internationally to include scientists from the United Kingdom and Taiwan. The Taiwanese scientists have been able to clone the coronavirus and provide a copy to study at the molecular level, allowing Tolbert and his team to learn how the virus works.

“And if you can figure out how the virus interacts with the cellular environment it has infected, where the real activity takes place, you can understand it better,” Tolbert said. “You can look at how it takes over the cellular machinery with the ultimate goal of making drugs to block those processes. But first you have to know how it hijacked the cells in the first place.”

Tolbert said he and his team had a head start to their work to understand how the novel coronavirus works, which could later lead to an antiviral to fight the resulting COVID-19.

“We were already working on something for which there are no antivirals, something with high mortality and morbidity (illness and other conditions associated with the virus) rates—especially for children in Southeast Asia,” he said. “So when we saw the early signs that this coronavirus had no antivirals or vaccine, we decided to see how we might get involved, knowing we already had that proof-of-concept with this other virus.”

Tolbert said he and his research partners are hoping to hear soon from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with an answer to if their project to develop an antiviral against COVID-19 will receive funding. He said how quickly the response from NIH comes will depend on if it considers his team’s work urgent enough to either help flatten the curve or find a permanent antiviral.

“I cannot anticipate what is coming next. This is something that needs to be done if an antiviral is going to be achieved. The bottom line is that we believe we are equipped and ready to go, and we can make a difference,” Tolbert said. “I don’t know if that means it will lead directly to an antiviral yet, but I believe we can find ways to target this at the molecular level.”

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