MELBOURNE, May 16 – It took about two years to develop an antiviral medication for Covid-19 during the pandemic that has killed more than 6.9 million people around the world.
Now, scientists at the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics (CGCPT) – located within the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity here in Melbourne, Australia – plan to work on developing new technologies for therapeutics over the next 20 years to treat future pathogens of pandemic potential.
“Our goal is to shorten the window for new therapeutics,” CGCPT director Prof Dr Sharon Lewin told CodeBlue in an interview at the Doherty Institute last month.
The infectious disease expert explained that CGCPT’s approach was “pathogen agnostic”, meaning that the centre is working on the platform technology that can be adapted to different viruses. CGCPT is focusing on families of viruses like influenza, coronavirus, and paramyxovirus, besides bacteria that can be transferred from human to human.
Dr Lewin said CGCPT’s objective was not to create a new drug, as the centre isn’t a pharmaceutical company, but to focus on discovery science and discovery research to identify new technologies that would ultimately lead to better antivirals that can be developed at speed.
As an example, the infectious disease expert cited messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for Covid-19. The mRNA technique was first discovered two decades ago.
“It started with someone having a crazy idea that mRNA could hijack the immune system, but it didn’t work because the human body made a reaction to the mRNA and so therefore, there were changes in understanding into why the human body was reacting to the mRNA, and key changes that made it possible to then deliver it to someone,” Dr Lewin said.
“mRNA was developed as a therapeutic, without ever imagining that you could use it successfully for a vaccine. But a lot of work went into understanding how to deliver mRNA. And then a pandemic arrived and it was fast-tracked into becoming a vaccine.
“We want to discover the next mRNA for therapeutics. We don’t want to do what’s currently being done now; we want to discover high-risk research that could transform the way we do things next time.”
CGCPT plans to work on new technologies that can directly target the genetic code of pathogens using gene editing and gene silencing. In current science, antivirals are developed largely through high throughput drug screens, targeting the proteins of the virus.
“So you take a library of different drugs – 10,000 compounds – and you just test it randomly against whether any of those 10,000 drugs will stop the virus from replicating. You might get one, or two, or ten hits, and then you slowly work out where those ten drugs are working and how effectively they’re working.
“And that’s what takes time,” Dr Lewin said.
The infectious disease expert explained that the drug might require chemical modifications, as well as tests in animals and people on its safety and effectiveness.
But focusing on new technologies could cut short this process, as all the work would have already been done on the technology that can be adapted to a new virus.
“If you want to target the genetic code of the virus, rather than the proteins the virus makes, you can use gene editing, for example, or gene scissors, or ways to suppress the genetic code. You can optimise all of that.
“You can work on how to deliver it in people. You can work on how to deliver it to the nose, how to deliver it to the lung. And then, when a new virus comes along, all you need is a new genetic code to target that virus,” Dr Lewin said.
Another strategy is to target the immune response.
“When you get a virus, why does one person clear it and another person gets sick from it? By understanding the early immune response, you can also develop therapeutics that mimic that early immune response to the virus, so that’s targeting the host, not the virus.”
Dr Lewin said it was unknown when the next pandemic would hit, noting that Covid was the first in a century.
“I think the feeling is that we’re at higher risk of pandemics now than we were 100 years ago. And that’s because the world’s very interconnected. You’ve got travel everywhere. We’ve got big cities with huge numbers of people living in them.
“We’re destroying natural habitat for animals. That means animals and humans being closer together. All of the climate change that is changing the distribution of mosquitoes. All of those things can drive pandemics.”
The Australian infectious disease expert said that although scientists do not know when the next pandemic would occur, they do know that new viruses appear.
“And we do know that certain families of viruses are more likely to cause a pandemic, especially if they’re transmitted from person to person by respiratory root, like in Covid or by the sexual root, like in HIV or hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
“Pandemics happen when a community or the population has no prior experience with that particular new virus. And that’s why they can spread very quickly through a community that’s never seen a virus like that.
“So we have a good idea of what are the families of viruses that have the potential to cause the pandemic. Some of them have high likelihood, some of them have low likelihood, but we need to be prepared for all of them.”
The Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics was launched last September, following a donation of AU$250 million (RM752 million) by Canadian philanthropist Geoffrey Cumming, who is currently living in Melbourne, that will be used over a 20-year period.
The Victorian state government has also contributed AU$75 million (RM226 million) annually for the first 10 years. CGCPT has a budget of AU$17.5 million a year for research.
“We know some of the technologies around already and can specify those areas,” Dr Lewin said.
“Some people will come up with very novel, never thought about ideas, high-risk novel ideas, and others will be working on things that are highly aligned to the goal of the Centre. So that’s already in, what I call, strategies that target the genetic code of the virus, strategies that target the early immune response, strategies that target – and that includes antibodies, how to generate – which we didn’t do in Covid. But antibodies for Covid weren’t very good because the virus kept escaping them.
“So we know about a lot of work in those areas. Those areas all meet the mission of the Centre, but there’ll be other things that we haven’t even thought about, which is what we want to fund.”