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What do your cat's digestive problems and COVID-19 have in common? They are both caused by coronavirus infections. And the same medication could fight both, according to the latest pandemic drug research.
A California veterinary drug maker is pushing for permission to sign up human volunteers to test a drug for cats against the deadly pandemic coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It’s in the same class as other promising drugs, and it has already proven to halt the COVID-19 virus in a petri dish.
The company, Anvive, hopes to start signing up human volunteers for a phase-1 clinical trial in “less than a year,” the website states, pending FDA approval for the trial. Anvive is working with Canadian researchers from the University of Alberta to handle the study, assuming it gets the FDA’s go-ahead.
The pet pharma firm has been selling the drug in question, GC376, to veterinary doctors to treat coronavirus gut infections in cats (“coronavirus” is a general term for the shape of a whole class of viruses – it does not refer only to the 2020 pandemic virus).
A June study in Cell Research established that GC376 and a few other drugs were effective in stopping the specific pandemic SARS-CoV-2 virus from reproducing in cell cultures, which set off the race to test it against coronavirus in patients as soon as possible. Another study funded by the government in Taiwan published about the same time in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy also called for human trials of GC376.
According to both peer-reviewed studies, GC376 targets the coronavirus’ main protease, a protien the cell needs to replicate its genetic material and spread infection throughout neighboring cells. GC376, one of a class of many protease inhibitors used against multiple viruses, couples with that protease, acting as a wrench in the works of the SARS-CoV-2 replication factory.
Different protease inhibitors are already in common use against viral infections like HIV and viral hepatitis.
Can GC376 Cure COVID-19?
As promising as GC376 might be for the future of COVID-19 treatment, there are a host of reasons it may turn out to be a dud.
Neither published study on GC376 describes how it behaves in the human body. Lots of compounds can kill viruses in a petri dish. Delivering that compound to the virus as it’s infecting the host is a more complex proposition.
“While preclinical research answers basic questions about a drug’s safety, it is not a substitute for studies of ways the drug will interact with the human body,” states the FDA in its description of the clinical drug research process.
People’s metabolism, the method of drug administration, dosage, side effects, interactions with other drugs, effects on coexisting conditions and other challenges are all factors researchers have to weigh when investigating a new drug. How all these factors affect how the body processes medication is called pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, as defined by Merck Manual.
Human trials may show it has no effect at all. This happened in June when the National Institutes of Health halted a clinical trial of hydroxycholoroquine in treating COVID-19 after studies showed no benefit. Or worse, a new drug may make peoples’ conditions deteriorate faster as a result of side effects.
In other words, finding a compound that kills a virus in cell culture is one of the first steps in getting a new drug to market, not one of the last, according to the FDA.
Where Do New Drug Compounds Come From?
Chemical manufacturers, vendors and middlemen, as well as government agencies in the U.S. and other countries, all form a massive, largely unseen sector of the medical research industry.
These companies build pre-cursor chemicals, proteins, enzymes and all sorts of compounds used in research. Some firms have whole libraries of different permutations of existing compounds just waiting to be used in experiments.
MolPort, for example, is one supplier of GC376, according to the U.S. government’s commercial chemical database PubChem. This company is a middleman for research laboratories, securing contracts on their behalf with manufacturers throughout the world.
“MolPort has collected the catalogs of all the major chemical suppliers that cater to drug discovery and created a consolidated database of commercially available screening compounds, building blocks and virtual compounds,” according to the company website. “These catalogs are up to date and typically synchronized with suppliers’ inventory daily.”
Some of these compounds don’t even exist yet – they are maintained in online libraries of “virtual compounds.” The computer models the properties of the chemicals, and systematically plugs them together via algorithm with the known properties of existing health conditions. This process can single out new chemical candidates for drug discovery, saving researchers’ time in examining each possible molecular permutation in the lab, according to the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling.
It was Anvive’s proprietary artificial intelligence that identified GC376 as a potential candidate for cat gut infections in the first place.
“Since 2018, Anivive has been developing GC376 to treat the leading cause of death in kittens and young cats, Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), a disease caused by a coronavirus,” Anvive states in a press release. “GC376 was identified as a promising therapeutic candidate by AniviveSELECT, Anivive's AI-powered software that accelerates the drug discovery process by analyzing and learning from a massive collection of drug data compiled from over 300 sources.”
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