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UBC researchers find three compounds that block COVID-19 infection

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A team of researchers led by scientists at UBC has identified three compounds that can prevent COVID-19 infection in human cells.

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The compounds are all from natural sources in Canada, including a sea sponge plucked from BC’s Howe Sound and marine bacteria from Barkley Sound.

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François Jean and co-author Jimena Perez-Vargas headed an international team that investigated more than 350 compounds from natural sources such as plants, fungi and marine sponges to unlock their potential to create new antiviral drugs for use against COVID-19 and other pathogens.

“This interdisciplinary research team is unraveling the important possibilities of biodiversity and natural resources and discovering nature-based solutions for global health challenges such as COVID-19,” said senior author Jean, an associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of BC

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Francois Jean, an associate professor in UBC's department of microbiology and immunology, is senior author of the study.
Francois Jean, an associate professor in UBC’s department of microbiology and immunology, is senior author of the study. Photo by PaulJoseph /UBC

The group bathed human lung cells in solutions made from the compounds then infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Twenty-six of them reduced viral infection, and three were effective in very small doses.

“The advantage of these compounds is that they are targeting the cells, rather than the virus, blocking the virus from replicating and helping the cell to recover,” said Jimena Pérez-Vargas, a research associate in UBC’s department of microbiology and immunology.

“Human cells evolve more slowly than viruses, so these compounds could work against future variants and other viruses such as influenza if they use the same mechanisms.”

The version of the virus used in the experiments makes cells glow fluorescent green when they’re infected, which allowed researchers to “easily and quickly check thousands of compounds,” said another co-author, Tirosh Shapira in the faculty of medicine. “Even more important, with it we have the option to track SARS-CoV-2 ‘live’ as it propagates from one cell to another.”

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“We’ve been collecting (compounds) for 40 years all over the world, but these three just happened to be Canadian, and two are from BC,” said co-author Raymond Andersen, a professor in the department of chemistry.

The challenge of the ever-evolving novel coronavirus is that, while the compounds worked well against the Delta and some Omicron variants, they weren’t effective against the newest variants. This highlights the need for new antivirals, said Jean.

The researchers will move on to animal models within the next six months, and continue to work toward “large-scale testing of natural product medicines that can block infection associated with other respiratory viruses of great concern in Canada and around the world, such as influenza A and RSV,” said Jean.


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