Australia: World's first antiviral treatments using nanoparticle to target COVID-19 virus

An antiviral treatment developed by Queensland researchers and US team that said to lock Covid-19 virus and kill them in infected mice by 99.9 per cent.
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Lead researcher Professor Nigel McMillan, from Griffith University, called it a "seek and destroy mission" where the therapy genetically targeted the potentially deadly virus.

The international team of scientists from the Menzies Health Institute Queensland and the US research institute City of Hope began their collaborative research last April.

Professor McMillan said the treatment could be available as early as 2023. (Supplied: Griffith University)
Professor McMillan said the treatment could be available as early as 2023. (Supplied: Griffith University)

They used a "next-generation" viral approach using gene-silencing RNA technology to attack the virus genome directly, which stops the virus spreading, according to Abc news.

"It causes the genome to be destroyed and the virus can't grow anymore — so we inject the nanoparticles and they go and find the virus and destroy it just like a heat-seeking missile," Professor McMillan said.

"This is the first time we have been able to package this up as a particle, send it through the blood stream to attack the virus.

Daily injections, or a single jab for those just exposed

“It is an injection that would be delivered daily into someone in ICU for four or five days, or as a single injection for someone just exposed,” Professor McMillan said.

Professor Kevin Morris said the treatment was designed to work on all betacoronaviruses such as SARS.(Supplied: Griffith University)
Professor Kevin Morris said the treatment was designed to work on all betacoronaviruses such as SARS.(Supplied: Griffith University)

“It allows us to treat those people who are suffering from the virus who are very sick, or those who may perhaps be in danger of being exposed to the virus, such as those in hotel quarantine.

US chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci has pointed out that, while we now have coronavirus vaccines, there is a lack of targeted treatments for the virus.

“This is really one of the first cabs off the rank in terms of a direct therapeutic, so we are really excited,” Professor McMillan said.

Not a cure, but will save lives

Professor McMillan said although it was "not a cure", it was a therapy that could reduce the amount of virus in the lungs by 99.9 per cent, "so it is almost as good as a cure".

"It is really for those people who are suffering for example in ICU, where vaccines are too late," he said.

Professor McMillan said traditional antivirals like zanamivir and remdesivir reduced symptoms and helped people recover earlier.

"Where this therapy actually stops the virus replicating, so the body can repair itself and the recovery will be much quicker," he said.

Griffith University's COVID-19 antiviral research team (LtoR) Professor Kevin Morris, Dr Adi Idris, Professor Nigel McMillan, Dr Arron Supramanin and Mr Yusif Idres.(Supplied: Griffith University)
Griffith University's COVID-19 antiviral research team (LtoR) Professor Kevin Morris, Dr Adi Idris, Professor Nigel McMillan, Dr Arron Supramanin and Mr Yusif Idres.(Supplied: Griffith University)

"It allows us to treat those people who are suffering from the virus who are very sick, or those who may perhaps be in danger of being exposed to the virus, such as those in hotel quarantine.

"They'd be assured they won't suffer from the disease itself."

He said US chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci had said while there were vaccines, there was a lack of direct therapeutics against the virus.

"This is really one of the first cabs off the rank in terms of a direct therapeutic, so we are really excited," Professor McMillan said.

"It is an injection that would be delivered daily into someone in ICU for four or five days, or as a single injection for someone just exposed."

He said the treatment could be available as early as 2023, depending on the outcomes of the next phase of clinical trials.

"Remember this virus is not going away — we are going to be living with it forever now," Professor McMillan said.

Co-lead researcher Professor Kevin Morris said the treatment was designed to work on all betacoronaviruses such as the original SARS virus (SARS-CoV-1) as well as SARS-CoV-2 and MERS.

"And any new variants that may arise in the future because it targets ultra-conserved regions in the virus's genome," Professor Morris said.

"We have also shown that these nanoparticles are stable at 4 degrees Celsius for 12 months and at room temperature for greater than one month, meaning this agent could be used in low-resource settings to treat infected patients."

The results suggest siRNA-nanoparticle formulations could be developed as a therapy to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as used for future coronavirus infections by targeting the virus's genome directly.

"These nanoparticles are scalable and relatively cost-effective to produce in bulk," Professor Morris said.

"This work was funded as an urgent call by Medical Research Futures Fund and is the type of RNA medicine that can be manufactured locally in Australia."

Hope for fighting future pandemics

The breakthrough also raises hopes that future pandemics will be less devastating as the treatment is designed to work on all betacoronaviruses such as the original SARS virus and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), as well as any new COVID-19 variants that may arise in the future.

The treatment will also be able to be provided in remote locations or poorer countries, as the nanoparticles are stable for a year when kept cold and for longer than a month at room temperature.

“Remember this virus is not going away – we are going to be living with it forever now,” Professor McMillan said.

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