Two UCLA scientists have received state grants for their separate research into a potential treatment and a vaccine booster for COVID-19, the university announced Friday.
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state’s stem cell agency, awarded grants to Vaithilingaraja Arumugaswami, associate professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Song Li, chair and chancellor professor of bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.
Arumugaswami received $349,999 to fund his team’s efforts to conduct pre-clinical research necessary to bring a promising COVID-19 treatment to trial. A drug called Berzosertib, currently in Phase 2 clinical trials for several cancers, including high-grade serous ovarian cancer, works by blocking a DNA repair pathway. The same pathway is also exploited by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and other coronaviruses, which hijack it to make viral copies of themselves inside of host cells.
Arumugaswami and Robert Damoiseaux, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology, identified the potential new application for Berzosertib through a test screening of 430 cancer drugs. The researchers suspect that if administered soon after diagnosis, the drug could limit the spread of infection and prevent the onset of disease-associated complications — without significant side effects.
“Clinical trials have shown that Berzosertib blocks the DNA repair pathway in cancer cells, but has no effects on normal, healthy cells,” Arumugaswami said. “For this reason, we think this drug shows great promise for treating COVID-19 patients and could be rapidly and safely be deployed in the clinic.”
The state grant will fund pre-clinical tests of Berzosertib using human stem cell-derived lung organoids infected with SARS-CoV-2.
“COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting underserved communities,” Arumugaswami said. “Our clinical trial will be designed to bring the therapeutic benefit to a diverse population, especially to those in underserved communities.”
If trials are successful, the next step would be to submit an investigational new drug application to the Food and Drug Administration as a first step in launching a clinical trial.
Li was awarded $149,916 to support his work to develop a booster that can be added to vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The booster could increase long-term immune response in elderly people and other vulnerable populations by stimulating the formation of T memory stem cells that can fight the pathogen.
“The number of naive T cells present in our bodies decreases as we age,” said Li, who is also a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “So for older people, their immune systems cannot effectively generate T memory stem cells, making them vulnerable to infectious diseases.”
If successful, the project should be able to move quickly through the regulatory process because the booster will be made up entirely of components that are either already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in humans or currently being used in clinical trials for other indications. It could also have broader applications.
“Our technology could be used to help older people and other vulnerable people build stronger immunity to anything we are vaccinating against — be it the flu, a new virus, or cancer,” Li said.
To date, UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center scientists have received four of 11 CIRM awards for COVID-19 research, the most provided to any individual institution, according to the university.
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