Sussex chemists join international effort to source small molecule drug in the fight against COVID-19

University of Sussex researchers have joined an international team of volunteer chemists aiming to deliver a drug candidate effective against COVID-19.

The COVID Moonshot project has seen scientists working in universities and industry across the world join forces to crowdsource designs for the drug, in the hope of shortcutting a process that would usually take years.

Professor John Spencer and postdoctoral researcher Dr Storm Hart have so far submitted around 100 ideas to the project, sending compounds from the Spencer Lab at the University of Sussex for testing.

The project was launched by PostEra , a company linked to the University of Cambridge, which uses Artificial Intelligence algorithms to map routes for drug synthesis to speed up the drug discovery process.

PostEra have been collaborating with Diamond Light Source , the UK’s national synchrotron, who have already discovered small molecules, called fragments, that weakly bind to the active site of a key coronavirus protein.

However, an effective drug compound will require additional iterations in order to be safe and able to last in the body. It is the design ideas for these compounds that are currently being submitted to the project.

Professor Spencer and Dr Hart already hold a UKRI grant with the Diamond Principle Instigator of the initiative, Professor Frank von Delft.

Professor Spencer, who worked for ten years as an industrial medicinal chemist before moving to academia, is now involved in discussions and is providing advice to those leading COVID Moonshot.

He said: “I was luckily able to access my laboratory, under strict University Covid guidance, to find novel chemicals that my PhD student, Arathy Jose had made (as part of her ERDF-funded EU Interreg project, LabFact , alongside Professor Mark Bagley ), and we have submitted a number of these to the cause.

“My personal feeling is that, the more I’ve been involved, the more I’ve felt ‘part of the family’ and perhaps a little more confident in putting out a few ideas, some of which might be a little out of scope. Luckily, some of these ideas have now been taken up and we eagerly await results!”

So far over 4,500 molecular designs from 280 contributors across the world have been submitted. Chemical synthesis companies have stepped up to physically make the compounds and two pharmaceutical companies are contributing resources toward the effort, all at a greatly reduced cost or for free. The molecules are also being tested for activity vs COVID-19.

The aim is to have several viable candidate compounds within a matter of months in order to buy time for, or provide an alternative to, a vaccine, which is expected to take at least a year to produce, and is not guaranteed.

If any drug candidates are identified via COVID Moonshot, the drug designs will be made openly available in the public domain without intellectual property restrictions.

The PostEra team are hosting a crowd-funding call to support this initiative and to find a solution to this global challenge.

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By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Thursday, 14 May 2020

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