UBC researcher Josef Penninger heads team that develops trial drug to possibly interrupt early-stage COVID-19

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      As far as scientific breakthroughs go, this could rank as one of the most important of the year.

      Today, an international team headed by UBC researcher Josef Penninger published their findings offering hope for counteracting COVID-19 in the peer-reviewed journal Cell.

      The paper has been accepted but the final version is still being edited and typeset.

      It reveals that the team has found a trial drug called APN01. It blocks a "cellular door" that SARS-CoV-2 relies on to infect human beings. 

      “We are hopeful our results have implications for the development of a novel drug for the treatment of this unprecedented pandemic,” said Penninger, a professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine, director of the Life Sciences Institute, and the Canada 150 Research Chair in Functional Genetics at UBC.

      The trial drug targets the novel coronavirus's key receptor, a protein on the surface of cell membranes called ACE2. It's the same receptor that the SARS virus used as a gateway during the 2003 outbreak.

      “The virus causing COVID-19 is a close sibling to the first SARS virus,” Penninger said. “Our previous work has helped to rapidly identify ACE2 as the entry gate for SARS-CoV-2, which explains a lot about the disease.

      "Now we know that a soluble form of ACE2 that catches the virus away, could be indeed a very rational therapy that specifically targets the gate the virus must take to infect us," he continued. "There is hope for this horrible pandemic.”

      Others involved in the research included Ryan Conder's gastrointestinal group at STEMCell Technologies in Vancouver, as well as Spanish researcher Nuria Montserrat, Toronto researchers Haibo Zhang and Art Slutsky, and an infectious biology team in Sweden headed by Ali Mirazimi.

      The research received a boost from the Canadian government, which has made funds available to accelerate research into measures to address COVID-19.