Detect and disrupt: How peptide research is leading to better tests and treatments for COVID-19

Dr. Mohan Babu

When Dr. Mohan Babu saw how rapidly the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe back in March, he decided to halt his existing research projects and turn his attention to new work. Dr. Babu, a biochemist at the University of Regina, knew that testing and treatment would become top priorities—and both were areas that could use his expertise.

With new federal funding, Dr. Babu is now focused exclusively on a number of COVID-19 research projects. As he predicted, the need for better, faster, and more accessible testing continues to dominate headlines, and the hunt continues for better therapeutics (medicines) to treat those who do become sick. By teaming up with experts from five universities across Canada, Dr. Babu has the opportunity to address both issues.

On the testing side, he is working closely with his team members to develop a low-cost COVID-19 test using saliva instead of the standard nasal swab.

"The problem is that if asymptomatic patients aren't found, and if those who are pre-symptomatic or have mild symptoms aren't identified, then we will continue to see community transmission," explains Dr. Babu. "So this unique test will look for peptides (fragments of proteins or short chain of amino acids) in patient saliva that are very specific markers for SARS-CoV-2 infection (the virus that causes COVID-19 disease). The test will be able to identify those markers—even with asymptomatic, early and mild cases—and the goal is to do so with more than 90% accuracy."

Unlike other saliva-based tests that still require samples to be sent to a lab for analysis, this test will use a small device to process the patient sample right away. If there is an infection, the easy-to-read indicator will detect it in a matter of minutes. When the prototype is ready in early 2021, this device will present a quick and easy testing alternative that is less invasive—that is, no swabs up the nose—and will likely be safer for health care workers because they can be farther away from patients during sample collection. Ideally, however, the test won’t need to be administered by health care personnel at all, as the team is working to ensure that the device will be suitable for use at home and in community facilities.

On the treatment front, Dr. Babu is leading a project to target the spike protein that gives the coronavirus its name. (The spike is sometimes referred to as the crown, and "corona" means "crown.") The spikey crown binds to specific receptors on our cell walls, much like a key fitting into a lock, which is how the virus invades cells and drives the infection. Researchers around the world are conducting similar work, with many focused on developing drugs to interfere with this lock-and-key method of entry into the cell.

But while most studies are looking at the host (the "lock"), Dr. Babu is focused on the virus (the "key").

"The virus 'knows' which place it wants to target, like it has a preferred door into the cell," he explains. "If you change the lock on that door, then the virus might be stymied—but it likely has a back-up mechanism that allows it to try its key on another door altogether."

Dr. Babu and his team are therefore creating specially designed peptides to disrupt the virus's ability to bind to a receptor at all—essentially stopping the key from fitting into any lock—which would stop an existing COVID-19 infection from progressing.

While he is encouraged by their results to date, Dr. Babu notes that it is time-consuming work. It takes approximately 4 to 5 weeks to synthesize a single specialized protein, and this task must be done by another lab altogether. The new realities of shipping delays and supply shortages can also slow things down, and the need for additional collaboration to gain access to appropriate facilities—that is, ones that are approved to handle experiments with a biohazard like SARS-CoV-2—can complicate timelines even more. Still, there is reason to be hopeful, as two of the specially designed peptides have already demonstrated strong potential for success. The team will test them using animal models in the fall and, if all goes well, Phase 1 (human) clinical trials to use these peptides as a potential treatment for COVID-19 could begin in January 2021.

Like most of us, Dr. Babu sometimes wishes he could get to the answers faster, but he cautions that some pieces and processes simply cannot be rushed.  

"Everyone is working very hard and everyone is stressed," he says, "but the science will get there."

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