Griffith University COVID-19 research

National Science Week is an opportunity to celebrate some of the fantastic science happening in Queensland. Here, we look at a Griffith University, Institute for Glycomics project where scientists from Queensland and Germany are working together to find treatments for COVID-19.

There is no doubt that vaccines are proving effective in helping us deal with COVID-19, but even with an 80 per cent vaccination target, we are going to need treatments in addition to vaccines.

That’s for a few reasons. There will be a percentage of the population who will refuse vaccination or are vaccine hesitant. Moreover, there are those who cannot be vaccinated, including people on immunosuppressive drugs, for example for cancer or autoimmune diseases.

There is also the chance, in the worse-case scenario, where we may end with up vaccine-resistant variants, or at the very least, variants that could compromise the efficacy of current available vaccines.

Scientists believe that COVID-19 may become endemic – a disease we will have to live with. Although vaccines will stave off the worst of the disease, we will require treatments.

That includes the need for a safe therapy for people who aren’t sick enough to go to hospital and can administer treatment at home.

It also includes treatments for those who, unfortunately, end up in hospital with serious illness.

Around the world efforts are being made to find an effective treatment that will work alongside vaccines, so we can live in a world with COVID-19.

More than 18 months into the pandemic and there is only one antiviral treatment – remdesivir – currently being used to treat the disease in hospitals.

Last year, the Queensland Government and the City of Gold Coast provided $200,000 to the Fraunhofer International Consortium for Anti-Infective Research (iCAIR) COVID-19 project to find new treatments.

The project brings together some of Australia’s leading infectious disease experts from Griffith University’s renowned Institute for Glycomics and some of Germany’s top scientists to find a way to defeat this complex and deadly disease.

The Fraunhofer iCAIR initiative combines four of the world’s major institutes on infectious diseases: the Institute for Glycomics along with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine, the Hannover Medical School and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research.

Fraunhofer iCAIR was established to develop new medications and technologies to treat or prevent respiratory diseases caused by viruses, fungi and bacteria. Last year, it embarked on a project to develop new medications against COVID-19.

The Institute for Glycomics is home for infectious disease experts Professor Mark von Itzstein AO, Professor Michael Jennings, Professor Johnson Mak and Professor Michael Good AO.

A key aim of the consortium is bridging the gap between the lab and the bedside, hastening the discovery of potential new treatments.

Their ambitious COVID-19 project set out to expedite the advancement of new drugs in the preclinical phase – in other words, before they move into human trial.

Institute for Glycomics Director Professor von Itzstein said what gave iCAIR an edge was that it had established a development platform that covers all the steps of a drug development process, from identifying potential points of attack right through to drug design and efficacy testing.

Professor von Itzstein and his team discovered the world’s first anti-flu drug Relenza in 1993.

“We look to find cures for COVID-19 through drug-repurposing screens using our advance ex vivo human models, develop new drugs based on these findings, and discover new vaccines to prevent the disease,” Professor von Itzstein said.

Due to the time and cost of developing new drugs, the team has been looking at repurposing existing drugs, already approved for other therapeutic purposes.

The researchers have identified and tested potential drug candidates in the lab using state-of-the-art high-tech equipment to rapidly test for drugs that block the binding of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing COVID-19) to cells.

They’ve found three potential candidates – medications used to treat dry eye, cystic fibrosis and a medical dye – that block the infection of cells in culture in the lab.

“This is hopeful, but that doesn’t say we have discovered treatments. It just means we have these three potentials that seem to have an impact on COVID-19 in the lab and are worth exploring more,” Professor von Itzstein said.

“We need to further evaluate, which requires further intense scientific scrutiny in the lab before we even think of moving to human trials. But this is promising either in repurposing these medications as therapeutics, or to guide the development of new drugs, using our advanced structure-guided drug discovery principles.”

One of the successes of the project has been the development of a scientific tool to assess the efficacy of potential drugs.

The scientists have developed a human airway epithelial (HAE) cell ex vivo model. Meaning experimental drugs and vaccines can be tested for their ability to cure or prevent COVID-19 infection in human cells without having to test experimental drugs and vaccines directly in a person, in the first instance.

The airway epithelium lines most of the respiratory tract ­­– stretching from the nose and mouth to the lungs – as respiratory mucosa, where it serves to moisten and protect the airways. Viral respiratory infections result when a virus infects the cells of the respiratory mucosa. These cells are key to studying COVID-19.

“The good news is that we can offer this as a service to companies wanting to know the efficacy of their experimental technologies against COVID-19. They can contact the Institute to conduct this assessment using this ex vivo HAE model in the Institute’s Physical Containment Level 3 Facility,” Professor von Itzstein said.

A Physical Containment Level 3 Facility is specially designed to ensure infectious microorganisms are safely contained inside the laboratory. It ensures the surrounding environment and workers inside the facility are protected from any risk of contamination.

The Institute for Glycomics is also looking at a potential new COVID-19 vaccine candidate aimed at protecting against circulating strains, with the ability to be modified for any variants that arise. The technology is currently gearing up for preclinical efficacy trials.

The $200,000 provided by the Queensland Government and Gold Coast Council came out of the $2 million Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Investment Fund set up after the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

The City of Gold Coast and the Queensland Government previously provided $750,000 and $700,000 respectively to Fraunhofer iCAIR program.

Established in 2000 through investment from Griffith University and the Queensland Government, the Institute for Glycomics is one of Australia’s leading biomedical research institutes.

The institute is based at the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct, connecting Griffith University with the region’s two major hospitals.

Last updated 19 Aug, 2021
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