Experimental cancer drug stops SARS-CoV-2, other viruses from infecting cells

Researchers say drug not only helps protect against coronavirus, but also influenza, HIV, measles, and other viruses.

RICHMOND, Va. — With doctors all around the world testing potential vaccines for COVID-19, it’s becoming a horse race to see which drug will clear patient trials first. A team in Virginia is now entering the race after finding an experimental cancer treatment stops coronavirus from infecting cells. The study says AR-12 not only inhibits SARS-CoV-2, but fights viruses like influenza and HIV as well.

Scientist Paul Dent and his team at Virginia Commonwealth University find AR-12 prevents SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, from both infecting cells and replicating. Previous studies reveal SARS-CoV-2 uses a “spike” protein to hijack human cells, forcing them to make more of the virus.

Dent’s team studies AR-12 for use against cancer and other viruses. The VCU lab’s work and other scientific publications show the promising drug is effective against illnesses including the mumps, measles, rubella, drug-resistant HIV, the flu, and Zika.

“AR-12 works in a unique way. Unlike any other anti-viral drug, it inhibits cellular chaperones, which are proteins that are required to maintain the right 3D shape of viral proteins. The shape of the virus is critical to its ability to infect and replicate,” Dent explains in a media release.

How AR-12 prevents virus replication

Researchers say AR-12 inhibits one of the key “cellular chaperones” which viruses use to reproduce, GRP78. The protein acts like a stress detector and is vital to the life cycle of viruses living in all mammals.

The VCU Massey Cancer Center is now examining the findings and are hoping to start a clinical trial soon. Its tested potential to fight cancer shows humans can take the medication orally and it won’t cause serious side-effects.

“AR-12 is an oral therapy that has been well tolerated in a prior clinical trial, so we know that it is safe and tolerable,” says Andrew Poklepovic, medical director of the Clinical Trials Office at Massey.

“Most COVID-19 drugs are given intravenously, so this would be a unique therapeutic option and potentially suitable for outpatient therapy, similar to the way one would take an antibiotic.”

Poklepovic adds the VCU is hoping to start enrolling patients in their clinical trial in early 2021. To do that however, scientists need FDA approval and create a protocol for testing the drug on COVID-19 patients.

The study appears in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology.

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