Disarming the virus that causes COVID-19 until it’s no worse than the common cold is a powerful strategy researchers are using to attack this deadly virus.
One Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering researcher is using decoys - peptide decoys - to do just that.
Michael Peters, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, has developed a potentially lifesaving novel peptide therapeutic that could slow the transmission of COVID-19.
Peters’ studies focus on preventing spike protein binding, a possible cause of COVID-19.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, attaches to and enters cells through the binding of its spike protein to the human cell surface receptor called angiotensin converting enzyme 2, or ACE2. ACE2 is a protein found on the surface of epithelial cells, making it highly dispersed throughout the body. Epithelial cells line body tissues. That means there are numerous opportunities for SARS-CoV-2 to infect lungs, kidneys, and other vital organs and vasculature.
The novel peptide developed by Dr. Peters binds to a segment of the COVID-19 spike protein, which mimics its attachment to ACE2.
A peptide decoy, if you will.
This decoy helps block the spike protein from attaching to the ACE2 surface receptor, limiting transmission of the virus.
Peters’ work includes biophysics computations and wet lab experiments to analyze the spike protein’s actions, giving researchers the possibility of predicting where binding could happen and how to restrict it effectively.
Bringing VCU research to the COVID fight
Last year, VCU Innovation Gateway launched the COVID-19 Innovation Center, an online portal dedicated to any and all research around the virus. Peters, a regular collaborator with the Innovation Gateway team, placed his novel peptide on the website. The work caught the attention of Hoth Therapeutics Inc., a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company based in New York that develops therapeutics for, among other conditions, asthma, chronic wounds, psoriasis and acne. And now, COVID-19.
Within a matter of weeks an exclusive licensing deal emerged, says Magdalena K. Morgan, director of licensing in the Innovation Gateway, the university’s central technology-transfer office that protects and licenses university-created intellectual property.
“They really wanted to jump on it,” Morgan says of Hoth. “It really was one of the quickest licensing deals we’ve done.”
Hoth chief executive officer Robb Knie says he was intrigued by Peters’ work with the protein computer simulations.
“I thought what he had done was really interesting, in the way that he was going after the virus with simulations, particularly compared to other researchers who were trying to treat it with antiviral methods,” Knie says.
Next steps in bringing therapy to practice
Within their licensing agreement, and alongside Peters, Hoth was able to check the peptide therapies against the live virus, as well as its variants.
Both showed good efficacy in the lab, Knie says. That prompted not one, but two, rounds of funding to continue Peters’ research.
He says Peters’ therapies compared nicely to remdesivir, the current treatment offered to COVID-19 patients in the hospital.
Knie says Innovation Gateway provided Hoth with research data and worked quickly to get the licensing agreement in place. He says Hoth makes a point to work directly with inventors like Peters “because in most cases, they’re the most passionate and obviously the most knowledgeable about the therapeutic they’re developing.”
Innovation Gateway “moved so quickly because they wanted to see if Dr. Peters could move his research along at a quicker pace with our help and our dollars.”
VCU Innovation Gateway, Knie says, “does a really good job of being very informative on their therapeutics, so you’re able to search and do a really good analysis of what they have. They’re very unique in that, compared to some other universities.”
The promise of therapies over vaccines
About COVID-19, Peters says therapies, not vaccines, would be the “desired way to actually treat the virus.”
“SARS-CoV-2 has found this optimal point between transmission and fatality. The fatality rate from COVID-19 is about 3% of those infected, but the virus has an incredibly enhanced rate of transmission leading to a large amount of deaths world-wide from the disease. Other viruses like Ebola are just too deadly to transmit very well and have been locally eliminated with vaccines,” he says.
Therapies don’t eliminate the virus among communities, which is the aim of vaccines. Instead, they make the virus less potent in those who are infected. Essentially, therapies reduce COVID-19 to something either asymptomatic or similar to the common cold.
Letting the Inventors Take the Lead
With Peters or any inventor, once research is licensed, Innovation Gateway takes a step back.
“We stay away – we let our researchers be involved in the science,” says Morgan. A step back, but not entirely removed.
The licensing team monitors research progress and steps in when needed.
“Our job is to make sure licensors or investors stick to their timelines and their promises,” Morgan says, “but also, that our inventor, our researcher, is happy with the progress.”
There’s more than prestige involved. There’s money, particularly if products emerge from the research.
VCU’s standard IP policies stipulate that 40% of any licensing revenues coming back to VCU will go to its inventors. Another 10% goes to the inventor’s school, while another 10% goes to the inventor’s specific department. Those sums can be enormous on their own, though the real money comes from royalties from a product once it hits the market.
If research reaches a patent stage, Innovation Gateway assists the inventor with that process as well.
Nothing happens, however, without that initial effort by VCU to showcase its creative talent.
In the past 10 years, Innovation Gateway has generated more than $26 million in licensing revenue; 42 new products have been brought to market and 172 patents issued.
Peters says he and Hoth are working on a relatively easy drug delivery method for this particular therapeutic that would be convenient for consumers, possibly a therapy they could get from the pharmacy and administer at home.
He’s appreciative of Hoth’s support. As a researcher, funding is a constant challenge.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a drug or anything else for that matter, every researcher has to deal with funding on a daily basis,” he says. “Hoth’s interest and support has allowed us to move this forward.”