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Merck and UCLA find new COVID-19 treatment candidate

Published on 25/03/21 at 11:59am

Merck (MSD in the UK), the UCLA, and other universities from the US and Germany have uncovered a compound that could treat COVID-19.

Berzosertib, licensed by Merck, was found to be effective in blocking the ability of the virus to replicate, while not causing significant harm to cells.

The treatment is currently being investigated in separate early- and mid-stage clinical trials in combination with chemotherapy as a possible treatment for small-cell lung cancer, ovarian cancer and other types of tumours.

The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, was led by UCLA Professor of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, and Bioengineering, Robert Damoiseaux, and UCLA Associate Professor of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami.

The researchers screened 430 drugs before identifying 34 that demonstrated at least some ability to halt the coronavirus, and eight that did so at relatively lower doses. Berzosertib eventually emerged as the most promising candidate.

Gustavo Garcia Jr, the study’s first author and a UCLA Research Associate, said: “Currently, there are no effective small-molecule drug therapies against COVID-19. This study identified a new potential therapy that could help the global fight against COVID-19 and support populations that have been disproportionately affected by this deadly disease.”

Berzosertib was identified as being able to block the virus’s ability to replicate. It is a protein kinase inhibitor, meaning it can turn specific proteins on or off – this is useful for cancer therapies, as tumour cells use kinases to grow, and berzosertib should prevent this. It is hoped the same type of drug could fight COVID-19 in the same way, by preventing cells from producing new copies of the coronavirus.

Damoiseaux explained: “Kinase inhibitors are very frequently standalone cancer treatments, and not all single-agent kinase inhibitors are well tolerated.

“By contrast, berzosertib is not a standalone treatment and has very limited effects on cell health when used on its own. It may be worthwhile for researchers to run clinical trials to find out whether cancer patients in particular might profit from this drug as a COVID-19 treatment.”

Jack Goddard

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