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K-State researchers hopeful but patient in COVID-19 treatment development

KSN Digital Extra

FILE – (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

(KSNW) – Doctors, researchers and pharmaceutical companies are putting in extra hours, racing to find a viable vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.

Two Kansas State University professors have done extensive research on MERS – which has close similarities to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. A pharmaceutical company recently licensed that research for their promising work in developing a compound that could one day treat severe respiratory syndromes. 

K-State virologists, Dr. Kyeong-ok “K.C.” Chang and Dr. Yunjeong Kim, have been working with and studying different families of novel coronavirus for over a decade along with Distinguished Professor of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, William Groutas of Wichita State and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanley Perlman of The University of Iowa. 

When the team of researchers began their work, no one knew how urgent it would become in 2020, when a new strain of coronavirus began to move around the world, creating an inescapable pandemic.

“I feel very sad about the whole situation. This is not something anyone would have expected even in February,” said K-State Veterinary Virology Associate Professor, Dr. Yunjeong Kim. I heard there was some pneumonia in China in the last of December, but I didn’t think it would pan out like this in just a couple of months.”

“This has never really happened before,” said Dr. Kyeong-ok “K.C.” Chang, Professor of Virology, K-State. “Personally, I feel some urgency myself. Especially because we know our compound has some potential.”

The University to pharma pipeline is strong when it comes to drug and medicine research, with many pre-clinical and clinical trials taking place in laboratories on university campuses. But research is costly to continue. 

Dr. Kim says that in most cases, pharmaceutical companies start from scratch developing new compounds for a disease. Much of the time, academic laboratories have already developed new compounds that they are then able to license out for further research by companies. 

According to Dr. Chang, drug development can cost anywhere from $10-million to $20-million per study, money many university science departments don’t have. Funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health gets the researchers work farther through trial testing than the University would be able to do on its own. Still, Chang says the next phase would require more investment. 

Cocrystal Pharma, INC, a Seattle based clinical biotechnology company, has been searching for compounds and research to combat COVID-19. In early April of 2020, Chairman of the Board, Gary Wilcox, reached out to Dr. Chang and Dr. Kim almost immediately after learning of their research.

“Our president and head of research at Cocrystal discovered through scientific meetings the really wonderful work that was being done at Wichita State and Kansas State on this collaboration of viruses called coronaviruses,” said Gary Wilcox. “So, it’s a great example of the university research that’s done in a collaborative way that, at some point in time, has a very important role to play.”

The researchers are confident their compound of protease inhibitors, a synthetic drug that inhibits viral replication in the body will have some success. But Chang and Kim will not fully understand their compounds’ efficacy or limitations until after a long road of trials, testing, and FDA approval which could take up to a year.

“That’s why we’re working with Cocrystal very closely together to try to go very fast without any delay,” Dr. Chang added. “Usually, development takes a long, long time. In this urgent situation, we have to evaluate each step as fast as possible.”

Wilcox says the company hopes to create an oral treatment, likely in pill form, to keep COVID-19 from advancing in patients who have contracted it, also to be able to prophylactically protect others who are in contact with that individual form contracting it as well.

“I’m sure they didn’t start out their work together 7, 8, or 10 years ago thinking about some virus that might emerge in December of 2019, but now it’s become very important,” said Gary Wilcox. We believe at Cocrystal that these compounds can be an important starting point for us to do what we do, and that’s’ to try and develop drugs, take them through the development process and take them on to regulatory approval so they can make a difference in the disease such as COVID-19.

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