Hunter researchers are set to test cancer drugs for use in the fight against COVID-19.
The project comes amid a worldwide push to repurpose existing drugs with antiviral properties to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, alongside global efforts to produce a vaccine.
A vaccine is expected to take at least 12 to 18 months to develop, so antiviral treatments are considered crucial to prevent deaths. And even if a vaccine is found, antivirals will be needed because vaccines aren't perfect.
Two professors, Hubert Hondermarck and Nathan Bartlett - of the Hunter Medical Research Institute and University of Newcastle - are leading the project.
As the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 began causing global havoc, Professor Hondermarck realised some cancer drugs should be explored as a possible treatment.
"There are indeed biochemical reasons to believe they could work. And this is really a war. Just like for a war, we need to try everything we can to defeat the enemy," Professor Hondermarck said.
The pre-clinical research will be done in vitro with donated human-airway cells.
Professor Hondermarck [a cancer biochemist] approached Dr Bartlett [a virologist] with the idea of testing some cancer drugs.
Their partnership represented a coming together of two disciplines - cancer biology and virology.
The pair pinpointed a link between growth factor receptors, which promote many cancers and viral infections.
They will test two categories of drugs used in the treatment of cancer - "growth factor receptor blocking monoclonal antibodies" and "tyrosine kinase inhibitors".
"I've been working on growth factor receptors for many years, so I know those molecules very well," Professor Hondermarck said.
"Viruses use the same molecules that cancer cells use to proliferate.
"I was aware of previous work done using growth factor inhibitors to target other viruses like influenza and dengue fever."
This previous work went largely unnoticed as there wasn't a pressing need for this type of medicine.
"It was more or less forgotten," he said.
Dr Bartlett said there was good evidence to suggest these cancer drugs could inhibit viral infections, "particularly through blocking growth factor receptors".
"These receptors are hijacked by viruses. By inhibiting the activity of these receptors, you can also inhibit the ability of viruses to replicate."
Dr Bartlett said a research grant application had been submitted to the federal government to fund the research.
"This is a government scheme aimed at fast-tracking clinically approved drugs that might be effective against coronavirus," he said.
The government is expected to make a quick decision on which projects get funded, given the circumstances.
"We've got all the systems set up to do this straight away," Dr Bartlett said.
The pair's research project will also test the capacity of other drugs to treat COVID-19, including the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin.
"There's a range of drugs approved for other uses that there's reasonably good evidence to suggest might be effective against coronavirus," Dr Bartlett said.
"The advantage of those drugs is they've already been through the approval process for another disease, so they don't need to go through the rigorous type of pre-clinical safety testing that a completely new drug has to go through."
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