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Texas A&M research team leads promising breakthrough for COVID-19 treatment

Posted at 11:11 PM, Apr 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 20:10:25-04

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A Texas A&M research team is leading breakthrough research for a new drug with promising potential for fighting COVID-19.

The team's research centers around a compound, which blocks the coronavirus's ability to form and replicate inside the human body. The compound, called "K777," started life with a much different purpose from treating COVID-19.

"It was discovered many years ago by my colleague, Jim Mckerrow, at UC-San Diego for treating Chagas disease," Thomas Meek, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Texas A&M University, said of the drug. "Then, we recognized the COVID virus has similar enzymes."

Those enzymes, Meek said, are like "molecular scissors" working on proteins to form coronavirus cells. He said K777 blocks spike proteins of the coronavirus from attaching to healthy human cells – limiting the virus's ability to infect the patient and spread.

Meek said K777 was so potent on COVID-19 cells, it quickly drew interest from a privately held biotechnology company in October 2020.

"Selva Therapeutics was trying to progress K777 for Chagas disease," Meek said. "I said 'Do you want to talk to me? We found this compound works against COVID-19.' And the CEO of Selva set up a Zoom meeting with me about 20 minutes later."

Meek said Selva Therapeutics requested approval by the Food and Drug Administration for K777 as a COVID-19 treatment two years ago, and right now, it's in Phase 2 of clinical trials. However, even with plans to vaccinate much of the U.S. population, Meek said patients will still need treatments like K777 to fight off future versions of the coronavirus.

"This is to help patients in the hospital, who have severe results from being infected," Meek said about the drug. "I think some of these emerging strains, if they are refractory to vaccines, such a compound would be very useful."

The next phase of the process involves drawing the interest of a larger pharmaceutical company for manufacturing and distribution, according to Meek. He said the research has garnered enthusiasm from colleagues and officials at Texas A&M University, especially from completing the work under limitations of the pandemic.

"The university itself has been quite supportive. In fact, the work that we've done here has been entirely paid for by Texas A&M AgriLife research," Meek said. "At one point I had to say the only reason I can have people come in the building is because they're working on this project."

The study also included partnerships with labs at the University of Texas Medical Branch – Galveston, the University of California San Diego and others.

Their findings were originally published online on the American Chemical Society website. Click here to read the original study.