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Drug repurposing - key to addressing the pandemic?

Vaccine development can take years, so in an effort to fast-track the search for a treatment for COVID-19, Queen’s scientists are examining how existing drugs might be repurposed.


Despite recent headlines suggesting a COVID-19 vaccine could be just months away, the reality is that developing and approving novel medicines is a lengthy process. However, a new research project at Queen’s promises to speed up the wait for a treatment by testing drugs already approved for human use for other diseases against the SARS-CoV2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

Ultan Power, Professor of Molecular Virology at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, who is leading the project says, “For this particular project, speed is of the essence. It’s really important that we develop treatments very rapidly. If we were to generate a new drug that has never existed before, it could take years to get that through the research phase; the development phase; the clinical phase and to get it available for patients.”

Professor Power points to the Ebola vaccine that first went into development during the outbreak in 2014 and that eventually came to market in 2019. “That process took five years to get the vaccine approved,” he says. “It’s a very costly and very slow process.”

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Jump-starting the search for a treatment

With the global death toll due to COVID-19 rapidly rising, that is time we can’t afford, so Professor Power and his team are hoping they can jump-start the search to find a treatment.

“We are going to take over 1,000 drugs that have already been approved for other diseases by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) – so we know that they are safe in humans – and we are going to screen them to see if any of them, individually or in combination, are capable of stopping the virus in its tracks.”

The project will screen the drugs on two fronts: whether they are capable of slowing down or stopping replication of the virus and whether they are capable of stopping the deadly inflammatory response that happens when the virus gets into the lungs.


A race against the clock

The drugs being tested range from repurposed leukaemia treatments to drugs that were developed to fight other diseases affecting the respiratory system such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

The Blood Cancer research group, led by Professor Ken Mills, at the Patrick G Johnson Centre for Cancer Research has experience in identifying drugs and combinations of agents that may be effective as treatments for leukaemia.   

Dr Ahlam Ali, one of the Senior Researchers currently in the blood cancer team, says:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a major threat to public health globally and scientists are racing against the clock to find a treatment. Unfortunately, the long, traditional way of drug development and approval is not suitable for this urgent outbreak. This process can take years which will not help patients who are dying today,” she says. “Instead, we are asking: What if we took already approved drugs that are safe for use in humans and have shown therapeutic benefit in other diseases and see if they are effective against the coronavirus? This is called drug repurposing. This will be the focus of our research.”

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Drug repurposing in action

Professor Ken Mills says: “From history, we know that drug repurposing works. We take the simplest example - aspirin can be used as a painkiller but it can also be used to help prevent and control cardiovascular disease, while latest research also suggests that it may be able to prevent certain forms of cancer.” 

Dr Ali adds “Drug repurposing has been used successfully before, for example, Viagra was originally researched to treat hypertension, then angina, before side-effects suggested the possibility of using it to treat sexual difficulties, while Metformin, widely prescribed for diabetes, is currently being explored as a potential cancer drug.

“So, our strategy will be using drug repurposing to develop anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs to treat coronavirus.

“Our research will offer a quick and immediate route to patients because [the drugs] have already gone through clinical trials and have been approved for treating other diseases. COVID-19 is progressing at a high speed, therefore we need to act quickly to tackle this virus.”