Pathways Issue 5: Research to Combat COVID-19 | Page 11

From artificial intelligence to X-ray crystallography , Dr . Artem Cherkasov ( AC ) and Dr . Natalie Strynadka ( NS ) both professors at UBC , are employing cutting-edge techniques in their quest to find an anti-viral drug to treat COVID-19 . They answer some questions about their potentially lifesaving project .

How will your research contribute to the worldwide fight against COVID-19 ?
AC : There are essentially two ways to combat any virus — drug therapies and vaccines . Our team is working to provide a drug therapy that could not only save lives of COVID-19 patients , but complement vaccine treatments once they become available .
How did your search for an anti-viral drug for COVID-19 begin ?
AC : When COVID-19 emerged , we began searching through vast chemical libraries to find the basis for potential new medicines . Using our newly-developed artificial intelligence algorithm , we scanned through 1.3 billion compounds in a week — something that would have once taken several years . Altogether , we found 1,000 compounds that held promise , and have since narrowed that list down to 100 for testing on the virus in the lab .
What ’ s your team doing right now in the labs at UBC ?
How optimistic are you about improving drug treatments ?
AC : I ’ m quite optimistic , in part because of what we already know about this coronavirus . Let ’ s use HIV as an analogy . Of course , there ’ s no HIV vaccine , and that virus can ’ t be completely cleansed from the body , yet HIV-positive people still live with the virus because of drug therapies . For this novel coronavirus , the prospects for successful drug therapies are even better because it ’ s possible to fully eliminate the virus from the body with the right therapies .
What ’ s needed to support a breakthrough in your research ?
NS : Although developing new drugs takes time , the federal and provincial governments have stepped up with unprecedented opportunities for rapid research funding targeting COVID-19 . Academic and industry partners , both nationally and internationally , are also working together in an unprecedented way , with a common goal . This incredible research support and synergy will help the world move towards implementation of effective treatments .
NS : We are using a biology “ toolbox ” of cutting-edge biophysical techniques , including X-ray crystallography and single-particle cryo-electron microscopy to capture atomic resolution pictures of the proteins this coronavirus relies on to reproduce and cause COVID-19 . These atomic structures are like blueprints we use to understand how that critical protein is built , how it works and how our designed drug compounds can specifically bind and block its action to prevent COVID-19 .