UBC Team: BC Sponge May Provide Covid Cure

UBC researchers have identified three biological compounds sourced in Canada that prevent COVID-19 infection in human cells. All three are derived from marine organisms, including a sea sponge native to Howe Sound.

The discovery paves the way for the development of new medicines for COVID-19 variants based on natural sources. BC’s ocean and forest ecosystems may contain a wealth of new antivirals waiting to be discovered.

Dr Pérez-Vargas

In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by UBC scientists investigated a catalogue of more than 350 compounds derived from natural sources — including plants, fungi, and marine sponges — in a bid to find new antiviral drugs that might be used to treat COVID-19 variants such as omicron.

 This interdisciplinary research team is unraveling the important possibilities of biodiversity and natural resources and discovering nature-based solutions for global health challenges such as COVID-19..

— Dr François Jean, senior author and associate professor of microbiology and immunology

The UBC team bathed human lung cells in solutions made from the compounds, then infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19. Of the hundreds tested, 26 compounds significantly reduced viral infection in the cells.

All three of the most effective compounds were found in Canada: alotaketal C from a sea sponge collected in Howe Sound, B.C., bafilomycin D from marine bacteria collected in Barkley Sound, B.C., and holyrine A from marine bacteria collected in Newfoundland waters.

BC sea sponge, image by Glenn Dennison of Marine Life Sanctuaries Society

“We’ve been collecting things for 40 years all over the world, but these three just happen to be Canadian, and two are from B.C.,” said co-author Dr. Raymond Andersen, professor in the department of chemistry.

Further testing showed the three compounds were effective against the delta variant and several omicron variants, and they are about as safe for human cells as existing COVID-19 treatments. Many of these treatments are no longer effective against currently circulating omicron variants, because the virus is evolving. This highlights the need for new antivirals, said Dr. Jean.

The compounds isolated by the UBC team work, even at very small doses, to strengthen the cell’s defences.  “The advantage of these compounds is that they are targeting the cells, rather than the virus, blocking the virus from replicating and helping the cell to recover,” said co-first-author Dr. Jimena Pérez-Vargas, a research associate in the department of microbiology and immunology. “Human cells evolve more slowly than viruses, so these compounds could work against future variants — and other viruses such as influenza — if they use the same mechanisms.”

Therapies based on these compounds, in other words, should remain effective even against a rapidly evolving and changing SARS family virus.

Currents interviewed Dr Pérez-Vargas (who appears in our feature image) about the team’s encouraging results. Here are some excerpts from that conversation; the podcast contains the entire interview.

CC: Is this a common sea sponge in British Columbia?

JP-V: I don’t think so, this is not a really common sponge, it’s very specific to here, to this area.

CC: Well we are close to Campbell River here, would we find the same sea sponge in our local area?

JP-V: I really don’t know. I’m just one part of the team, more involved in working with the virus. We didn’t make expeditions and look for the specimens. There are other teams that go looking, that are specialists in this kind of work.

CC: Can you explain the significance of the colours in the computer images?

JP-V: Well the blue is the live cells, so we can determine the numbers of cells. There are two markers that we use to detect the infection and they are red and green. So when we treat the cell with the compounds, we hope that we don’t see any more red and green colours, just blue in the pictures, and this is how would know the cells are recovering. So if we still have a lot of blue but no more red, then we know there are a lot of cells still alive [without the virus].

CC: When we say it’s effective in blocking the virus, are we talking about an actual cure? Can we say it’s a cure?

JP-V: Yes. Well, this study was done in cells, right? It is a laboratory study. But yes, we did completely block the infection so the virus is not able to spread, the cells are clear of the infection. Totally healed, yes. So it is not The Cure but it could be another tool to fight this disease. We need all kinds of antivirals and there are a lot of people working on it, but if we put in our piece it helps.

CC: Now for particulars, there’s a very deadly variant of Omicron going around right now. Is that the one we’re talking about?

JP-V: We used for this study the omicron that was around before — BA1, BA2 — BA5 was the last one we worked with. But the new variants that are circulating today, like the BQ1, XBB, these are subvariants of B2 and B5. So we believe that our compounds are going to work against the new variants also, because they are working against the “parents”. And these compounds are targeting the tools in the cells that the viruses use to replicate. So we know that these compounds can be used for a new variant, for a variant that could emerge in future, because all the different variants use the same tools [in the cell] to spread the virus, and if you don’t allow it to use these tools then it cannot spread.

CC: And who are you, that did the research? What is your group?

JP-V: So we work at UBC in antiviral research. We try to find new kinds of antivirals, right now with the SARS-Cov2. But we also are interested in other respiratory diseases like flu or RSV which is important today affecting children. We can test these kinds of compounds with other diseases.

CC: Can we call them “cures”? Are they effective against flu and colds?

JP-V: Some of them we know have an effect on flu. Not every kind of flu. But the flu virus that we tested, yes. They are effective with that. It does not prevent, it stops the infection. So it is not a vaccine. But if you already have the virus it can stop the infection, help your body to get rid of the virus.

CC: What’s the next step? Now that these compounds are shown to be effective, is there more testing or do we go to market? How long before they might be available?

JP-V: For us the next step is — well, now we know the chemicals, the compounds, so the idea now is learning to produce these compounds in the lab so we don’t need to go and take all the sponges from the sea to extract the compounds at a large scale. We need to do this in the lab and maybe even improve the properties. And then we need to prove that these compounds work in a more complex model, that means small animal models because it is different from the [lung] cells. And if it blocks the virus in the same very effective way in small animals, like mice, then we are approved to go forward; the next steps are maybe clinical trials, then we need to team up with some people who have the experience to do that step. We are not able to do more than the next two steps — making compounds in the lab, and the animal model. Maybe we are talking about a year after that. And it depends if there are some people interested in going forward with these kinds of compounds.

CC: Anything else you would like to tell our listeners?

JP-V: I think just that this is a collaborative work, right? This is possible only because there are different teams involved. We did the virus part, but we need the help from different teams: the people who collect and extract these compounds that came from all over the world, and the people here in Vancouver working on the viruses. It’s important to know there are a lot of people involved to make this possible.

Full Text of UBC Press Release on which this article is based

Photo credits: UBC Press Release (except Sea Sponge image, Glen Dennison, Advisor, MLSS).

[The interview with Dr Pérez-Vargas was conducted by Roy Hales originally, but re-recorded by De Clarke for radio.]