UT Southwestern Scientists Look for COVID-19 Answers

Researchers are working to determine if any FDA-approved drugs already on the market could fight coronavirus

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Research happening on two fronts at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas could produce a weapon to fight COVID-19.

“So the COVID-19 virus is here. We have it and we're working on it,” said Dr. John Schoggins, assistant professor of microbiology.

The live virus that causes COVID-19 was securely delivered to the Schoggins  Lab at UT Southwestern. The virus was inside a tube that was put in a vessel, then transferred to an ultra cold freezer. 

The thought of being exposed to the virus causing an unprecedented global pandemic may give some reason to worry, but Schoggins said his team is safe. 

“We have very good bio-containment facilities. And these are engineered rooms that have all the right precautions in place. We wear these gowns, these masks that have ventilation protection, so it's actually very, very safe,” he said. 

Schoggins and other researchers started this new project in the past week or two. The goal is to test certain FDA-approved drugs to see if they can inhibit the virus. 

Schoggins and his team are working along side computational biologists. 

“So what they do is, they go into the computer and are asking the question, ‘Are there any FDA-approved drugs that we could use that could be what we call re-purposed?’ So they basically will take them for their normal use and then see if they can be targeted or re-purposed for fighting this infection,” Schoggins said.

“Then in the lab, we test that. We get the drugs and then we test them in the cells in the dish and say, 'Can these drugs inhibit the virus?.” 

While it sounds promising and hopeful to think a drug already on the market could imminently be used in a new way, Schoggins added, “We have to put a cautious note upfront, saying it might look great computationally, but when we get into practice, there's many reasons why it might not work. “

This is Schoggins’ second research project involving coronavirus. Researchers in New York and Switzerland used technology he developed in 2012 to identify a protein produced by the human immune system that can hinder the coronavirus, including the one behind the COVID-19 outbreak. 

At Schoggins’ lab in Dallas, meanwhile, his team was studied how this protein, LY6E, effected the ability of mice to respond to a coronavirus which is different from the current outbreak. 

“And, so what we found was that if the mice have the protein, they're able to resist the virus and they don't get sick, but if we engineer the mice and they don't have the protein, they actually get very sick from this mice coronavirus,” Schoggins said.

In mice, the virus causes a liver disease and not the respiratory illness seen in humans.  

Schoggins said while the research, which he called “very basic science” was published, it hasn’t been peer-reviewed. And while it might provide insight, “We don’t really have a good pipeline for translating the knowledge of what we find in the petri dish and the mice into actual therapies. So, this is a long process unfortunately.” 

Schoggins called the research happening now in his lab with the live virus “very exciting” with the possibility of an “immediate impact” if they get lucky. 

“It’s a shot in the dark, a needle in the haystack kind of thing," he said. "I hesitate to get hopes up, but I think it’s something that is imminently useful in terms of seeing if there’s something we can do with the current situation."

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