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UC San Diego Researchers Work to Find Cure for COVID-19

by Neal Bloom

By Andrea Siedsma 

In a molecular biology lab at UC San Diego, a small group of researchers has just begun work that, they hope, will lead to a cure for the new deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).  In particular, the team has already identified the four proteins in COVID-19 that could be drug targets. 

“For Influenza viral infections, for example, drugs targeting such proteins block the virus,” explained lead researcher and Molecular Biology Professor Milton Saier. “We have never worked on such a project before, but have done all of the bioinformatic analyses with SARS and MERS as well as flu, etc…..” 

Saier, who has been at UCSD for 45 years, said a novel COVID-19 drug would inhibit viral propagation and transmission of the virus. A coronavirus is a type of virus that can cause respiratory illness in humans and animals. An infection with the new coronavirus causes a respiratory disease called COVID-19.

“As you probably know, vaccines and antiviral drugs have been developed for many viral infections, but by no means all,” he said. “This effort is partly hindered because of the high mutation rates observed for many viruses. COVID-19 does not mutate as rapidly as some (like HIV or flu) but it is still a problem.  We will not know how serious a problem this is until after we have progressed further with the project.”

UCSD Professor Milton Saier

Saier’s lab has three primary research interests – one concerned with transcriptional and metabolic regulation in bacteria, a second with transport protein evolution, and a third with the recently identified process of transposon-mediated directed mutation. The researchers use a multidisciplinary approach to science, using biochemical, molecular genetic, physiological, and computational approaches.

To protect his small staff – which includes one research associate and two students – the team is mostly doing the bioinformatics work for the COVID-19 project remotely and conducting research meetings via Zoom once a week. 

While he can’t give an estimated time-frame for completion of this new exciting research project, Saier said, “I believe solutions will be found, but it takes time.  It’s estimated that it may take about 1 1/2 years to develop effective drugs and vaccines. Still there are leads as some anti-SARS drugs have been reported to work on COVID-19, although not so effectively.”

“Currently there is no cure or treatment for COVID-19 as you know.  It would be fantastic to be able to develop a cure for this devastating disease,” he added. 

The Saier Lab is just one of several examples of how San Diego is at the forefront of innovation during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But, it’s not surprising that the region, home to the third largest biotech cluster in the nation, is contributing critical solutions, products and research to help combat this virus. For an up-to-date list of San Diego companies,  research institutions, and organizations developing these solutions click here.

Editor’s Note: Fresh Brewed Tech will keep you updated on Saier’s ongoing research on  finding a cure for COVID-19.

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