200 repurposed drugs offer hope for preventing, treating COVID-19

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — If, as the CDC says, “the war has changed,” then the world is going to need new weapons in the fight against COVID-19. In a twist however, a new study finds there may already be powerful treatments that can beat COVID-19 in existence. Researchers from the University of Cambridge say repurposing dozens, if not hundreds, of drugs may uncover an unlikely cure for coronavirus.

Teaching old drugs new tricks can be challenging, but it is not uncommon. After all, there are 20,000 prescription drug products approved for marketing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Historically, many of the drugs available today were originally developed for different purposes. For example, zidovudine failed as a cancer treatment in 1964, but gained approval two decades later as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Repurposed drugs already undergoing clinical tests

Cambridge scientists hope to speed up the process for the sake of the world’s most pressing current battle. The team used artificial intelligence (AI) to uncover 200 approved drugs that have the potential to fight off the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Scientists merged computational biology with machine learning to organize a complete map of the proteins involved in a COVID-19 infection. These proteins run the gamut of disease progression, from those which break into the host cell to begin with, to those that occur during the resulting infection.

Computer models performed a virtual screening of roughly 2,000 approved drugs, narrowing the list to 200 potential candidates that might target viral replication or immune-system response. The researchers note that 40 of these drugs are already undergoing COVID-19 clinical trials, which they say supports their approach.

However, they wanted to take it a step further. The scientists selected a subset of the drugs that might work against viral replication and tested those with the use of cell lines derived from both humans and non-human primates. The results revealed that two of the approved drugs in particular — proguanil, an antimalarial drug, and sulfasalazine, a medication for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease — were able to suppress viral replication in cells.

New drugs may reveal hidden secrets of COVID

Researchers say the cell-line test results offer additional validity that there are existing, already approved drugs that have the potential to prevent or treat COVID-19.

“By looking across the board at the thousands of proteins that play some role in SARS-CoV-2 infection–whether actively or as a consequence of infections–we’ve been able to create a network uncovering the relationship between these proteins,” says study lead Tony Kouzarides, director of Cambridge’s Milner Therapeutics Institute, in a university release.

“We then used the latest machine learning and computer modeling techniques to identify 200 approved drugs that might help us treat COVID-19. Of these, 160 had not been linked to this infection before. This could give us many more weapons in our armory to fight back against the virus.”

Scientists say they encountered surprising information about the mechanisms hidden within COVID-19 transmission and infection. They believe their data-driven approach validated by their laboratory test results confirms the strength of their findings.

“We hope this resource of potential drugs will accelerate the development of new drugs against COVID-19,” concludes Dr. Namshik Han, head of Computational Research and AI at the Milner Therapeutics Institute. “We believe our approach will be useful for responding rapidly to new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and other new pathogens that could drive future pandemics.”

The team published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

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