University of British Columbia’s Dr. Tirosh Shapira, left, spoke at a June 18 Temple Sholom-hosted webinar emceed by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz. (screenshot)
“COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 has a different type of genetic material than we have. It is an excellent saboteur … and can mutate easily. Thus, if we develop a drug against it, we will likely, over time, begin to see some resistance,” University of British Columbia microbiologist Tirosh Shapira told a Zoom audience in a June 18 webinar.
“In my research,” he said, “instead of looking for one drug, I am looking for four. I am trying to create a cocktail similar to what is applied with treating HIV. We are looking for drug combinations.”
There is an added level of complexity involved in seeking such combinations, he noted, as certain drugs can negate the effects of others.
Shapira is among a select group of Canadian scientists hunting for a cure to COVID-19. He earned his PhD from Australia’s University of Queensland, where he specialized in molecular toxicology for global food security. Before devoting his efforts to COVID-19, his research at UBC led to a novel treatment against tuberculosis and the development of methods to improve drug discovery.
To the web audience hosted by Temple Sholom, Shapira spoke on the topic of drug development in British Columbia, particularly as it pertains to the new coronavirus. He also provided an overview of modern drug discovery and a look at the advanced facility for virology research at UBC.
“Viruses are a large array of different agents,” explained Shapira, “each with unique characteristics, and depend on their hosts in order to replicate and create more copies of themselves … they vary greatly. However, some share similar properties.”
Knowing, for example, the similarities of the common cold and SARS, scientists can gain a better understanding of how the biology of COVID-19 might play out. This type of application led to the discovery of the effectiveness of the drug Remdesivir against the MERS virus, for instance.
Citing the history of combating viruses through treatments, Shapira showed a graph of the downward trend of infections from tuberculosis, starting in the late 19th century. He used this to elucidate the factors needed beyond drugs to control an epidemic, such as economics, sanitation and education.
“On a global scale, sanitation and containment are extremely important for an immediate response to an immediate threat,” he said. “Understanding SARS-CoV-2 is based on understanding similar viruses. The best way to defeat new viruses is through social adjustments.”
Shapira distinguished between the classical and modern approach to drug discovery. The classical approach, he said, is to look under a microscope and examine what is there, while the modern approach considers all possible compounds and is less concerned about the biology.
According to Shapira, the modern approach essentially throws everything at a problem. This, in turn, reduces the research bias on the part of the scientist, has fewer developmental pitfalls and is more “statistically robust,” thereby making it more likely for discoveries to pass clinical trials.
Biology, he hastened to add, is still important – the quality of the test model will determine the quality of the outcome. “Good, sound biology brings good, sound compounds that are good pharmaceuticals,” he said.
When considering how to target a virus, Shapira told the online group that a researcher will look at known antivirals, U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs, drugs in clinical trials and natural products, the source of most new antibiotics and antivirals.
Drug development is a complex, multi-stage process which has greatly advanced in the past 20 years, he said. In the United States, for example, it begins with pre-clinical trials in labs and with animal testing. Next come clinical trials focusing on safety and efficacy, before moving to randomized testing. Afterwards, there are FDA trials and ultimately production.
UBC’s FINDER (Facility for Infectious Diseases and Epidemic Research), where Shapira conducts his research, has an automated workstation and screening microscopes that handle the large workload of sorting through tens of thousands of compounds without introducing human error.
Due to restricted access to the highly infectious coronavirus, research in Canada can only be performed at a limited number of contamination-free facilities, which also include the University of Toronto and the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
In their studies, UBC’s researchers use lab-grown organs in a dish and a live virus, explained Shapira. FINDER has previous experience with this model from the outbreak of the Zika virus. At FINDER, the UBC team screens the thousands of compounds with collaborators around the world.
Shapira, the only microbiologist conducting research on the COVID-19 virus in British Columbia, estimated that there are 200 biologists and another 2,000 people working on various studies, including in economic areas, related to COVID-19 in Canada.
“SARS-CoV-2, despite being a present threat, will pass,” said Shapira. “But other infectious diseases will emerge in this age of easy travel. Preparedness is key. We will gradually reopen as we are better able to monitor the spread of the virus. We will find a treatment.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.