Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world in early 2020, many scientists in the viral research community have shifted their focus to study the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Dr. Colleen Jonsson is one of them. She’s the Director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, and Director of the Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis.
Dr. Jonsson has been studying highly pathogenic human viruses for more than three decades. She has led several cross-institutional projects using high-throughput screens to discover small molecules that could be used as antiviral drugs. And now, she’s using that experience to find an antiviral therapeutic against SARS-CoV-2.
Cervical cancer is a major health problem for women, and it is currently the fourth most common cancer in women globally (1). A worldwide analysis of cancer estimates from the Global Cancer Observatory 2018 database showed that cervical cancer disproportionally affects lower-resource countries, on the basis of their Human Development Index; it was the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in many African countries (1).
Infection by human papillomavirus (HPV), a double-stranded DNA virus, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Many types of HPV have been identified, and at least 14 high-risk HPV types are cancer-causing, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet. Of these types, HPV-16 and HPV-18 are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions. HPV infection is sexually transmitted, most commonly by skin-to-skin genital contact. Although the majority of HPV infections are benign and resolve within a year or two, persistent infection in women, together with other risk factors, can lead to the development of cervical cancer [reviewed in (2)].
Developing a vaccine that is safe, effective, easily manufactured and distributed is a daunting task. Yet, that is exactly what is needed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vaccine development, safety and efficacy testing take time. The mumps vaccine is thought to be the quickest infectious disease vaccine ever produced, and its development required four years from sample collection to licensing (2). However, there are many reasons to anticipate quicker development for a COVID-19 vaccine: Researchers are collaborating in unprecedented ways, and most COVID-19 scientific publications are free for all to access and often available as preprints. As of August 11, 2020, researchers around the globe have more than 165 vaccine candidates in development, 30 of which are in some phase of human clinical trials (1). The range of vaccine formulations available to scientists has expanded to include RNA and DNA vaccines, replication-defective adenovirus vaccines, inactivated or killed vaccines and subunit protein vaccines. Equally important is that vaccine developers and researchers have greater access to powerful molecular biology tools like bioluminescent reporters that enable quicker testing and development.
With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over in the United States and worldwide, the battle against the disease continues to intensify. Much hope has been pinned on vaccine development. However, vaccines are a long-term, preventative strategy. The immediate need for drugs to fight COVID-19 has accelerated efforts for a variety of potential treatments (see The Race to Develop New Therapeutics Against Coronaviruses).
The Remdesivir Origin Story
One drug that has received widespread attention is remdesivir. It was developed from research by Gilead Sciences that began in 2009, originally targeting hepatitis C virus (HCV) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (1). At present, remdesivir is classified as an investigational new drug (IND) and has not been approved for therapeutic use anywhere in the world.
Loss of smell (olfaction) is a commonly reported symptom of COVID-19 infection. Recently, Bilinska, et al. set out to better understand the underlying mechanisms for loss of smell resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In their research, they used in situ hybridization to investigate the expression of TMPRSS2, a SARS-CoV-2 viral entry protein in olfactory epithelium tissues of mice.