A team of researchers led by Asst. Prof. Urartu Şeker of the Institute of Materials Science and Nanotechnology (UNAM) at Bilkent University is participating in the national effort to develop drugs that can be used in the treatment of COVID-19. Dr. Şeker’s project, which is being conducted in collaboration with Prof. Aykut Özkul, director of the Ankara University Biotechnology Institute, is aimed at developing new proteins able to block the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) from binding to human cells. The team has completed the design of two such proteins and is about to move on to the experimental production stage.
The research effort is going on within the context of a program announced by Minister of Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank to support projects aimed at developing vaccines and drugs for use against COVID-19. Coordinated by the Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology affiliated with the TÜBİTAK Marmara Research Center, the program identified ongoing projects in Turkey that could be converted to focus specifically on this virus, as well as innovative projects with the potential for quick completion, and began offering support for such work.
Realizing the potential severity of the epidemic, in early February Dr. Şeker and his colleagues created a sub-study group within their research group and began discussing and preparing a research plan focusing on COVID-19–related investigations.
Describing their current project, Dr. Şeker stated that the research team aimed to convert for use against SARS-CoV-2 a protein that was originally designed and produced to use against the virus that causes Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever. The Bilkent team is developing and producing the protein, while Prof. Özkul’s team will conduct clinical studies.
“We’re working on the development of proteins that will prevent the coronavirus from attaching to the surface of the human cells,” explained Dr. Şeker. “This way, the spread of virus particles in the body will be prevented. The design of two different proteins has been completed quickly thanks to the genetic engineering and synthetic biology experience of our research group. Currently, we’re moving on to the experimental production stage. After this stage is completed, Prof. Özkul and his team will begin testing the protein against the virus that causes COVID-19. After completing all the preliminary clinical studies, we aim to start phase studies in humans.
“We plan to complete the study, including the preclinical stages, within 6 to 9 months, and so are working night and day. We anticipate that we will have an effective, new-generation drug that can be given to infected patients. Given the fact that the COVID-19 epidemic is expected to continue, we want to develop a drug that can be used against the disease in the medium and long term.”