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Ocean sponge living off British Columbia coast an effective Covid treatment

The virus that causes Covid-19 continues to evolve into variants that may evade current treatment. Enter the lowly ocean sponge.

(CN) — Which organism would win in a battle royale, the virus that causes Covid-19 or a Canadian marine sponge? Researchers identified three organisms off the coast of British Columbia that may offer natural treatment against current and future variants of SARS-CoV-2, according to a study published in Antiviral Research on Monday.

“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,” senior author Dr. François Jean, associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology, said in a statement accompanying the study.

Entering year four of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers continue to look for ways to prevent and treat the disease which has killed at least 6.6 million people. The World Health Organization counted at least 657 million viral infections to date.

Emerging variants of the Covid-19 virus constantly test the effectiveness of both vaccines and natural immunity in protecting people from disease and death. Researchers also worry about the long-term effectiveness of treatments like monoclonal antibodies.

In efforts to identify new treatments, an international team of researchers led by the University of British Columbia, recently pitted 373 natural products against the virus in an arena of human lung cells. The natural products came from a variety of plants, fungi, bacteria and marine sponges that can be commercially produced.

Twenty-six of the compounds showed potential but three reigned supreme, sourced from the coast of British Columbia. Two compounds came from marine bacteria, holyrine A from actinomycete and bafilomycin D from streptomyces. The third, alotaketal C, was isolated from the marine sponge phorbas.

If any of these compounds are eventually used in actual treatments they will be made in a lab to avoid environmental injury.

“Finding a bioactive ‘lead’ compound is the first step in all drug development programs, regardless of whether the ‘lead’ is a natural product or a purely man made synthetic compound. There are many, many steps from this point to the ultimate goal of having a new drug in clinical use,” Raymond Andersen, one of the paper's authors, said in an email. Andersen is a professor of chemistry at the University of British Columbia.

Even though the compounds appear promising at this stage, many hurdles remain, including developing the actual drug, figuring out doses and clearing regulatory hurdles. The compounds identified in the study therefore won’t be ready for the market for another 10 to 15 years. Still, Andersen said the virus isn’t likely to evolve resistance against host-directed antivirals, which target infected cells rather than the virus.

“The exciting thing about these drug leads is that they inhibit viral infection by targeting the host cells rather than directly targeting the virus," Andersen said. "This means that the virus cannot easily mutate in order to develop resistance. This is consistent with the fact that, for instance, alotaketal C is active against all of the variants of concern that we have tested it against so far."

Other natural products have shown to be effective in treatments against malaria, cancer and inflammation.

There are also benefits from an intellectual property standpoint.

“Our antiviral natural products provide new patent-free academia-originated leads for further development as alternatives to patent-protected pharmaceuticals,” the study authors wrote.

Many of the paper’s co-authors, hailing from Italy, Thailand, Brazil and the U.S., discovered or described the natural products in study.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded the project alongside grants provided by others.

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