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Drug extracted from sea squirts fights coronavirus better than remdesivir, study finds

Posted at 4:36 PM, Jan 27, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A cancer drug based on a compound found in a rare sea creature is 30 to 100 times more powerful against the virus that causes COVID-19 than remdesivir, according to a new set of experiments reported in Science.

In lab tests in petri dishes and mice, the drug Aplidin showed the ability to significantly slow replication of the virus and reduce lung inflammation, according to a team led by scientists at the University of California San Francisco.

Aplidin is the brand name of the drug plitidepsin, a compound originally found in a rare Mediterranean sea squirt. Sea squirts cling to rocks and coral. The creatures are named for their tendency to squirt out seawater when disturbed.

The Australian Regulatory Agency approved Aplidin in 2018 for the treatment of multiple myeloma. The drug does not have authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Of all the drugs that we and our collaborators have screened [for efficacy against COVID-19], this is by far the most potent,” saidDr. Nevan Krogan, the director of UCSF’s Quantitative Biosciences Institute.

Dr. Krogan and his colleagues have been testing existing drugs to see if they can be repurposed to be used to treat the coronavirus. Instead of focusing on drugs like remdesivir that target proteins in the virus itself, they have been reviewing a catalog of therapies that target proteins in human cells that the virus needs to hijack in order to replicate.

“The virus can’t live by itself. It can’t replicate by itself. It needs our genes and our proteins,” Dr. Krogan said.

With viral mutations making headlines around the world, there are some concerns that adaptations in the coronavirus’ spike protein might allow the virus to eventually evade therapies like monoclonal antibodies or the vaccines. That’s where this alternate strategy of targeting human proteins has a major advantage, Krogan said.

“If you target the human protein, we don't mutate nearly as fast as a virus so you don't have to worry about it getting resistance that way,” he said.

This week, Krogan and his collaborators released early research showing Aplidin was just as effective against the UK variant as it was against the original strain. The research was posted to a pre-print server, meaning it has not yet been peer-reviewed.

“What we've also shown is that different viruses target similar human proteins, so if you're going to be able to combat SARS-CoV-2, you're probably going to [combat] SARS-CoV-3,” he said.

PharmaMar, the Spanish drugmaker behind Aplidin, has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 trialsof Aplidin for use in COVID-19 patients with positive results, setting up a large-scale Phase 3 trial, Krogan said, although the start date is unclear.

“If Phase 3 clinical trials started tomorrow, one could see this drug being more widely used in a couple of months” if the results were promising, he said.

The drug is given in lower doses to COVID-19 patients and for a shorter period than the regimen for cancer patients, reducing the potential for side effects.

Krogan said it’s the closest any drug he’s tested has gotten to becoming a real COVID-19 treatment; a treatment straight from the Mediterranean Sea.

This story originally reported by Derek Staahl on