Tyrone Burke, November 10, 2020

Carleton Researchers Developing Anti-Viral Peptide Treatments To Help Disrupt Inflammatory Responses to COVID-19

Treatments for COVID-19 can help us manage the pandemic, even without a vaccine. Carleton bioinformatics researchers are using artificial intelligence to identify the protein interactions that could be responsible for COVID-19’s most severe symptoms, and working to develop peptide-based anti-viral treatments that prevent them from occurring in the first place.

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus only has 29 proteins, but the human body has as many as 20,000. That makes for hundreds of thousands of possible interspecies protein-protein interactions, and it is beyond the capacity of humans to efficiently analyze all of them. James Green of Carleton’s Department of Systems and Computer Engineering is using computational techniques to identify which of these interactions could be causing COVID-19’s most severe symptoms.

James Green, Systems and Computer Engineering

In work funded through an NSERC Alliance Grant, Green’s Lab is using data from other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS to predict potentially problematic interactions. Using those predictions, Kyle Biggar of the Institute of Biochemistry is identifying the peptide inhibitors that could disrupt the interactions themselves.

Peptides are chains of amino acids. They are similar to proteins, but smaller, and they serve a variety of functions in the human body. In the body, peptides can help cause or prevent the protein interactions that lead to processes like hair and skin growth, and they might similarly be able to help disrupt the protein interactions that lead to symptoms like inflammation.

Kyle Biggar, Institute of Biochemistry

“Once we have computational predictions of how a virus protein interacts with human proteins, we can computationally predict the peptides that should disrupt those interactions,” says Biggar, who is working with Ottawa biotech company Zim Corporation on the project.

“Our research has identified well-characterized interactions like the spike protein, but also a handful of others that look like they mediate host-cell entry and inflammation.”

Inflammation can play a significant role in the most severe cases of COVID-19. If peptides could prevent these inflammatory responses from occurring, it would mean fewer patients experience life-threatening symptoms, and would help further lower the mortality rate of COVID-19. In turn, this could reduce the need for lockdowns and social distancing.

The development of peptide-based therapeutics are not only relevant to COVID-19, they can be used to treat existing illnesses like cancer, and could even help us respond a future pandemic from another virus we have not yet identified. “It can take a long time to bring a peptide into the clinic as a therapeutic,” Biggar says.

“This is fundamental research toward developing a new pipeline that can be used for future anti-viral treatments. It takes a long time to set up a reliable pipeline, but once you have, it’s a lot easier to do it the next time around.”

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