Researchers develop RNA-based antiviral technique

In a study published in Angewandte Chemie, researchers have reportedly shown how this approach could be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have developed an approach to tackling viruses by targeting the ‘control centre’ in viral RNA, which they say could lead to broad spectrum anti-viral drugs and provide a first line of defence against future pandemics.

In a study published in Angewandte Chemie, researchers have reportedly shown how this approach could be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Earlier modelling and in vitro analysis by the team, published in Chemical Science has also shown effectiveness against the HIV virus.

Prof Mike Hannon, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemistry, is co-lead author of the study. He said: “Although SARS-CoV-2 vaccines have been developed with unprecedented speed, there has still been a 12-month wait for development and approval. Viral pandemics remain a big threat and so broad-spectrum anti-virals are urgently needed to keep diseases like coronaviruses at bay while effective drugs are developed.”

The technique proposed by the team uses cylindrical molecules which can block the function of a particular section at one end of the RNA strand. These RNA sections, known as untranslated RNA, are essential for regulating the replication of the virus.

“Our approach offers a very promising new route for anti-viral drug design,” said Hannon. “While most drugs in development target the virus’s proteins, we have identified molecules capable of tackling the most fundamental part of the virus – its RNA.”

Co-lead author Dr Pawel Grzechnik, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences, said: "The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how important is RNA biology to understand molecular processes taking place in our cells, to find ways to suppress pathogens and to make efficient and safe vaccines.”

Dr Zania Stamataki, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy and also co-lead author, said: “In Birmingham we have state-of-the-art containment level 3 facilities that allow us to study the full virus life cycle. We have developed models to test the effects of new antiviral therapies, and the supramolecular cylinders show promising results against replicating SARS-CoV-2. The ambition is that these new categories of compounds can be refined and targeted to extend their function against many other viruses that infect humans and animals.”

The team will continue to develop the design of the cylindrical molecule, aiming to improve its effectiveness and control, and also to fully understand how it works within the virus before testing it in a model organism.

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (both part of UK Research and Innovation), the Wellcome Trust, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Foundation and the EU Marie Curie Fellowship scheme.

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