EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Pharmacy has started research to develop vaccines and antiviral drugs to fight COVID-19.
Researchers are confident the vaccines and antivirals will be available within the next 15 months to two years.
Suman Sirimulla, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at UTEP, is leading a group of researchers to develop pharmaceutical combatants to COVID-19.
Dr. Sirimulla is working with other faculty members at UTEP, like Md Nurunnabi, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences, and Manuel Llano M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Additional collaborators include Tudor I. Oprea, professor of medicine and chief, Translational Informatics Division, Department of Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico.
The team of scientists is using supercomputing to combine tiny molecules and create viral protein inhibitors that will bind to COVID-19’s spike, or “S,” protein. Once the binding occurs, the viral protein inhibitor will block the virus from attaching and infecting healthy cells.
One challenge with creating the viral protein inhibitor is that S proteins take on different shapes in different strains of coronavirus. These spikey proteins resemble the arches of a crown, giving coronavirus its name.
“The coronavirus targets the respiratory cell’s ACE2 and TMPRSS2 enzymes and uses the spike protein to attach itself to them,” said Dr. Sirimulla, a computational chemist with more than 10 years of drug discovery research experience in a statement.
“Once the virus gets into the cell, it begins to replicate. What we are trying to do is target the virus’ RNA-dependent RNA polymerases enzymes that are involved in replicating the virus.”
Antivirals like the one UTEP is developing will be used to target a specific subunit of the COVID-19 virus, which according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information is made up of a peptide, a transmembrane domain that communicates with molecules outside the virus cell, and a cytoplasmic domain that is responsible for protein transport.
These structures are protected, which means they are vital for virus survival and could thusly be targeted by antivirals.
By targeting the virus’s genetic structure, the drug will be able to prevent the virus from multiplying.
UTEP researchers are using sophisticated computer science through The University of Texas System’s Texas Advanced Computing Center to better understand the interaction between viral proteins and molecules of the protein inhibitor.
Dr. Sirimulla is conducting simulations through TACC that will expedite the lengthy process of developing news drugs, which can sometimes take as long as ten years.
Work like Dr. Sirimulla’s speaks not only to the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the ways sophisticated computer technology and biology can coalesce.
“These computer-aided approaches are common in pharmaceutical sciences research, and Dr. Sirimulla’s expertise is uniquely suited to make significant contributions to the fight against COVID-19,” said Marc B. Cox, Ph.D., professor in biology and chair of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department in Pharmacy at UTEP.
Dr. Sirimulla’s approach will screen massive quantities of molecules (spanning more than one billion compounds) that can be easily synthesized and accessed via online chemical libraries.
The screening will help discover specific molecules with compounds likely to inhibit COVID-19 from spreading, like figuring out the combination of a very complex lock.
People at home can help UTEP and its research speed up that process — there’s an app for that.
Your home computer, laptop, and other devices can be used with an app developed by Dr. Sirimulla to sift through data, at no cost, inconvenience, or privacy violation to the user.
Volunteers can download BOINC@TACC, which is a program that uses TACC’s supercomputers with volunteer’s computers to help Dr. Sirimulla’s app pore through the billions of molecules in the online libraries. To learn more, click here.
Once Dr. Sirimulla discovers the proper molecule, scientists at labs outside of UTEP will validate the results.
In the meantime, Dr. Llano will be developing a method to test Dr. Sirimulla’s predictions without exposure to the virus.
“At this stage of the project we will not work with the virus but with a few individual viral proteins that we will generate by chemical synthesis,” Dr. Llano said. “Therefore, this project does not involve any biosafety risk.”
“This is just the beginning of a long project that has the potential to obtain a therapeutic drug.”