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article imageEssential Science: First treatment option for COVID-19 developed

By Tim Sandle     Mar 16, 2020 in Science
The novel coronavirus that causes the infection COVID-19 has been hard to ignore, dominating headlines. With the question ‘how close are researchers to developing a treatment?’, one drug appears promising for blocking viral entry into cells.
Virologist are looking into how the novel coronavirus penetrates cells, with a view to using this process as a mechanism to block the viral activity. The German scientists have located a a cellular enzyme that is necessary for viral entry into lung cells. The enzyme (a protease) has been named TMPRSS2.
This outcome means that a drug known that is active against TMPRSS2 has been shown to be effective in blocking the coronavirus and hence this could, following further trials, lead to the development of a novel treatment option.
The disease COVID-19 (or more precisely 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease) is causes by a betacronoavirus called SARS-CoV-2 (the virus is so named due to its close genetic similarity to the SARS - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - virus that made was widely reported on in 2003).
A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus  which is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible co...
A microscopic view of the MERS coronavirus, which is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people
, British Health Protection Agency/AFP/File
SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus, making the jump from one species (probably bats) to humans, with the outbreak originating in Wuhan City, in China. Other notable coronaviruses are also zoonotic: SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans.
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Fever, cough or chest tightness, and dyspnoea are the main symptoms currently being reported. While most cases report a mild illness, there are severe cases requiring intensive care. The incubation period is estimated to range from 2 to 10 days (with most symptoms appearing at around day 5).
Since China reported a new coronavirus at the end of December  the SARS-like virus has infected more...
Since China reported a new coronavirus at the end of December, the SARS-like virus has infected more than 500 and killed 17
Emerging data suggests that the reproductive figure for the virus is relatively high and transmissibility has increased, and it is now at around 3.28 (meaning that a person who is infected will typically infect between 3 and 4 other people).
New development
With the current efforts designed to develop a treatment, new data indicates that a cellular protein is important for the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into human lung cells. The protein has been identified as protease TMPRSS2 (or transmembrane protease, serine 2).
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Deborah Cannon of the Special Pathogens Branch as she processes SARS specimens.
Deborah Cannon of the Special Pathogens Branch as she processes SARS specimens.
CDC/ Anthony Sanchez
Importantly this means that both the SARS coronavirus of 2003 and the novel coronavirus of 2019/20 are activated by TMPRSS2. From this, both can be inhibited by a class of drugs called TMPRSS2 inhibitors.
This fact has led to test on an existing drug called camostat mesylate (developed to treat pancreatic inflammation). The drug can inhibit the protease TMPRSS2. An experiment was conducted by the researchers, who work at the Deutsches Primatenzentrumto see if the medication can be resupposed to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2.
The initial results are encouraging, showing that camostat mesilate can block entry of the virus into lung cells. The next phase is for further assessment with a view to setting up clinical trials.
The following video provides more background about the research to date:
Research paper
The new research has been published in the science journal Cell. The research paper is titled “SARS-CoV-2 Cell Entry Depends on ACE2 and TMPRSS2 and Is Blocked by a Clinically Proven Protease Inhibitor.”
Related research: A diagnostic test for the coronavirus?
The French life sciences company bioMérieux, is to launch of three different diagnostic tests to address the COVID-19 epidemic. This includes the SARS-COV-2 R-GENE® test. This is a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test qualified for one type of respiratory specimen.
Laboratory technician at work  taken at Tim Sandle s laboratory.
Laboratory technician at work, taken at Tim Sandle's laboratory.
The other tests are a fully-automated test developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Defense. This test is designed to specifically detect SARS-CoV-2 and it runs on existing bioassay equipment.
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue.
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Via flickr user rjp (CC BY 2.0)
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