Skip to Content

Our two-pronged attack on COVID-19

A unique collaboration between our leading virologists and our haematology experts will see a series of existing drugs tested on lung tissue models infected with COVID-19 in a safe laboratory setting.

While there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, the world’s leading experts are racing to find a way to get ahead of the disease. At Queen’s, we are examining the role that existing drugs, which are already approved for patient use, might have when repurposed to help fight the disease.

Ultan Power, Professor of Molecular Virology at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, and Ken Mills, Professor of Experimental Haematology at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, are combining their expertise to screen existing anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs for activity against COVID-19.

Queen’s has unique access to tissue models

During his 30-year career researching viruses that affect our respiratory system, Professor Power has developed a series of unique human tissue models replicating part of the human lung in a laboratory setting and investigating crucial human virus-host interactions.

For this new project, made possible by a National Institute for Health Research grant of close to £300,000, Professor Power and his team will be infecting human lung models with SARS-CoV2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease – and testing around 1,000 drugs to see if any of them are capable of stopping the virus replicating, and whether any of them  can dampen down the inflammatory response that happens when the virus gets into the lower respiratory system.

Professor Power is a world expert at developing lung tissue models. “Access to the kind of tissues that we have is relatively rare,” he explains. “We have unique models here that allow us to infect human tissues with the SARS-CoV2, which is responsible for COVID-19 disease currently causing a pandemic around the world. Using these unique models, we can ask specific questions about how SARS-CoV2 causes disease in those tissues. If we understand that interaction, we can then potentially repurpose drugs to treat patients and eventually vaccines to try and prevent this deadly disease.”

Drug combinations might hold the key

Collaborative research is the cornerstone of the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine and Professor Power will be working closely with colleagues in the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, who have specific expertise in large scale drug screening. Dr Ahlam Ali, from the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, is one of the Senior Researchers on the project. She explains how the innovative drug screening methods being used for leukaemia research are being applied to find treatments for COVID-19. 

“We know that drug repurposing works. Take the simplest example: aspirin can be used as a painkiller but it has also proved effective in managing patients with cardiovascular disease. Our strategy will be using drug repurposing to identify anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs that may be used to treat COVID-19.

“We are trying to screen around 1,000 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA: the regulatory body for approving medicines in the US), either as a single drug or in various combinations. However, we are talking about 500,000 possible drug combinations. Testing these individually would be time consuming and expensive. In our lab, we have evolved technology known as “multiplex screening for interacting compounds” (MuSIC) that will significantly speed up the screening process and reduce the cost. 

MuSIC will allow the team to screen a “library” of anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs to find drugs with potential activity against SARS-CoV2. “Screening for both anti-viral and anti-inflammatory drugs will have more potential impact than screening for either on their own.”

Once the drugs have been selected, large volumes need to be dispensed, which can be a laborious and time-consuming task if done manually. Dr Ali and her team will be using a robotic liquid dispensing handler called Echo that’s available at Queen’s Genomics Core Technology Unit.  “Echo will offer quick and precise distribution of the drug which will ultimately speed up the drug-screening process,” she explains. 

Professor Power adds, “Our goal is to try and take combinations of drugs – combine them in sets of two, three and four drugs or more depending on our preliminary data and use the combinations to screen whether we might identify one or two that meet the requirements of perturbing the SARS-CoV2 virus-host interaction and blocking the inflammation.” 

‘A privilege and an obligation to help’

While his work to date has largely been focussed on Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Professor Power says it’s a privilege and an obligation to focus his expertise on the global threat of COVID-19. 

“We are in a strong position to do something significant and to add to the national and international effort that is attempting to fight this infection,” said Professor Power. “It is an obligation to take it on and try and use our expertise to find solutions. I feel very privileged to be in a position now where we can add to the collective effort to find ways of dealing with this deadly virus and reducing its consequences on the population.”

Dr Ali adds, “I am personally excited to start this project. We have a great team on board, with Professor Ultan Power, an expert in virology who will guide all the virus work and Professor Ken Mills, who is an expert in large scale drug screening. In addition, we have two international collaborators from the US and Spain who are experts on coronavirus.  It’s going to be really challenging but at the same time if we are able to find suitable therapeutic interventions that can tackle coronavirus, that will be a great result for our research and a significant contribution to the global community effort.”

Queen’s University Belfast awarded grant to find COVID-19 treatment

How the virus will safely reach the laboratory

If you would like to find out how you can support the University in its efforts to tackle the pandemic, click here