One researcher at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory (NEIDL) in the South End of Boston received samples of the COVID-19 virus late last week, and has permission to begin working to find a treatment for those with the virus – with the NEIDL being one of only about 10 places rushing for a breakthrough therapy.
Professor Robert Davey, PhD., said the NEIDL started on Thursday, March 19, growing the virus in the Level 5 biolab with samples of the COVID-19 collected from the first patient that died in the United States, a man from a nursing home in Washington state.
With the virus samples in their possession, Davey said the entire scientific community in Boston and at the NEIDL is invigorated to begin working in combination on a successful treatment for a sickness that has rocked the entire globe off its normal axis.
“That’s why it’s great working in Boston because you have all this great stuff going on here,” he said, noting that he worked in Texas for about 20 years before being recruited by the NEIDL in 2018. “That’s how great science is done and how you find great treatment…All the schools and universities here have come together to try to nail this. That is very invigorating and exciting.
“Otherwise, scientists tend to be stuck to their own thing,” he continued. “I have my niche and exist in that niche. I might practice my science and do great work, but usually there isn’t everyone coming together at once like this. I’m looking forward to doing our work and seeing if we can make an impact on this outbreak.”
Those helping Davey in the testing will be Harvard University, MIT, the Broad Institute and other industry partners.
Samples came in just in the last few days, and Davey said they are growing the virus right now in the lab to be used in testing over the next month. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had taken samples from the first man in the U.S. that died in Washington state on Feb. 29. Those specimens were sent to the University of Texas where they have a repository for infectious disease samples. From there, they were sent to the NEIDL this week, along with about 10 other places.
Having all those places working at the same time is a strategy similar to taking as many shots at goal as possible, with the idea being that one will eventually get through for success. He said that having 10 places is not a lot of places nationwide, so they do consider it an honor to be part of the group looking for a successful treatment.
“Finding an effective treatment is much like finding a needle in a haystack,” he said. “To swing the odds in our favor, you need to throw a lot of needles into that haystack and you’ll find one that works. With our testing, it’s like taking as many shots on goal as you can and by doing that you’ll have a greater chance of success.”
The NEIDL will be testing small molecules on the virus. Small molecules are drug treatments that have been made by chemists as potential treatments to a virus of this kind. They will test these small molecules on tissue samples infected with the virus with the goal of finding something that stops the virus from replicating. Once they find a “hit,” they would begin testing it on lung cells that are in the possession of the lab – as lung cells are most relevant to what the virus attacks.
To get to that point, they’ll be using 20,000 small molecules produced by their partners.
“We are expecting to test 20,000 small molecules,” he said. “A (typical) pharmaceutical company (trial) would test one million, but this is a very directed session.”
Finding one of those small molecules that work is the first step, Davey said, to identifying a treatment.
The testing, he said, would likely last for about a month. However, any success they have would then have to be run through testing with mice, then to Phase 1 clinical trials and finally to licensing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There is no sense of how long that might take, but the FDA has said it is focusing all its resources on approving anything that is successfully produced at the NEIDL or any of the other approximately nine sites across the country.
Davey clarified they are only working on a treatment for those who already have the COVID-19 virus, but there are others within the NEIDL preparing to work on a vaccine for COVID-19, which would be given to those who are not yet sick in order to prevent them from getting sick.
“There are other groups here doing vaccination development, and in the near future you will hear about them,” he said.
As he and his team began to prepare for the work of finding a therapy, he said he did feel a sense of extreme purpose.
“It’s important to be part of a team effort contributing to trying to find a cure,” he said.