Early-stage lab research by scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI)and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York suggests that a simple drug that has been on the market for decades might be effective in treating COVID-19.  The team led by HUJI Prof/ Yaakov Nahmias whose article has just appeared in Cell Press’ Sneak Peak, say that early research looks promising. 

Over the last three-months, Nahmias and Dr. Benjamin tenOever at the Manhattan hospital have focused on the ways in which the devastating new coronavirus causing our current pandemic changes patients’ lungs to reproduce itself.  They discovered that the virus, SARS-CoV-2, prevents the routine burning of carbohydrates.  As a result, large amounts of fat accumulate inside lung cells – a condition the virus needs to reproduce.  This new understanding may help explain why patients with high blood sugar and cholesterol levels are often at a particularly high risk to develop COVID-19.

Nahmias’ Lab at Hebrew University’s Grass Center for Bioengineering. (Credit: Daniel Hanoch)

Viruses are parasites that lack the ability to replicate on their own, so they take control of our cells to help accomplish that task. “By understanding how it controls our metabolism, we can wrestle back control from the virus and deprive it from the very resources it needs to survive,” Nahmias explained.

“Viruses are efficient metabolic engineers that actively rewire host metabolic pathways to support their lifecycle,” they wrote in their article. “Charting SARS-CoV-2 induced metabolic changes in lung cells could offer insight into COVID-19 pathogenesis [how a disease develops] while presenting new therapeutic targets. Here we show that SARS-CoV-2 induced transcriptional response [the means by which a cell regulates the conversion of DNA to RNA, thereby orchestrating gene activity].in primary lung epithelial cells and biopsies of COVID-19 patients is predominantly metabolic… This data correlates with reports that the SARS virus caused insulin resistance in 50% of the patients over the course of infection.” 

Hebrew University Professor Yaakov Nahmias. (Credit: Daniel Hanoch)

With this understanding, Nahmias and tenOever began to screen FDA-approved medications that interfere with the virus’ ability to multiply. In lab studies, the cholesterol-lowering drug Fenofibrate (Tricor) showed extremely promising results.  By allowing lung cells to burn more fat, fenofibrate breaks the virus’ grip on these cells and prevents the virus’s ability to reproduce.  In fact, within only five days of treatment, the virus almost completely disappeared.  

“With second-wave infections spiking in countries across the globe, these findings couldn’t come at a better time,” said Nahmias, “and global cooperation may provide the cure. “The collaboration between our labs demonstrates the power of adopting a multi-disciplinary approach to study SARS-CoV-2 and that our findings could truly make a significant different in reducing the global burden of COVID-19,” tenOever added.

While there are now many efforts around the world to develop a coronavirus vaccine, studies suggest that vaccines may only protect patients for a few months.  Thus, blocking the virus’ ability to function – rather than neutralizing its ability to strike in the first place – may be the key to turning the tables on COVID-19.  “If our findings are borne out by clinical studies, this course of treatment could potentially downgrade COVID-19’s severity into nothing worse than a common cold,” Nahmias concluded.