UTSA’s Doug Frantz, the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Distinguished Professor in Chemistry and cofounder of the university’s Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, is screening small molecule libraries to identify compounds that could potentially be developed into a coronavirus treatment.
For the past decade Frantz’s research group at UTSA has collaborated with scientists across the state on multiple therapeutic approaches toward cancer, chronic pain and infectious diseases. Thousands of novel small molecular compounds were designed and synthesized by undergraduate and graduate students in Frantz’s lab as a culmination of those efforts.
Earlier this week Frantz shipped samples of roughly 250 of those compounds to collaborators at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for testing in which cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 will be pretreated with the compounds designed at UTSA. Researchers at UTMB Galveston aim to provide preliminary data from these tests in late April.
The compounds identified by Frantz have chemical properties similar to hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, two immunosuppressive drugs that were previously used to treat and prevent malaria, that have shown promise in reducing effects of COVID-19 in recent lab studies.
Both drugs are part of a class of compounds known as quinolines. Frantz’s compounds are as well, but they are comprised of different atoms and bonds that could provide additional benefits for those infected with a strain of the coronavirus.
“We’re hopeful that some of these compounds that have never been tested before against coronavirus may lead to a potential treatment down the road,” Frantz said. “It could be an alternative or backup treatment to hydroxychloroquine, or maybe it could be a safer or more active compound than hydroxychloroquine.”
Once the results are back from UTMB Galveston, top scientists from all four institutions of the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics—UTSA, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Southwest Research Institute—will go to work on refining a treatment from any compounds that show promise. That includes Frantz and three UTSA graduate students designated as essential personnel.
“What UTSA has been great about doing is bringing together people like me and others who have experience in drug development to modify that compound and make it even better in the lab,” Frantz said. “We’ll keep reiterating this until we get something crazy potent that can be further tested.”
Frantz described his initial efforts as the “tip of a huge iceberg” and assistance from national funding agencies will be necessary for his research moving forward. The classic process of drug development, from initial research to animal testing to clinical trials to FDA approval, typically has a timeline of five to eight years.
The ultimate hope is to develop a treatment that will reduce the severity of sickness for those infected “not if but when,” Frantz stressed, the next strain of coronavirus emerges. “Some people still get the flu even if they get a flu shot,” he explained, “so you have Tamiflu to help you get over those symptoms. That’s what we want to put in place for coronavirus.”
For now, this research will help the scientific community in its efforts to grasp how the coronavirus attacks cells and reacts to certain molecules.
“The cool thing is that even if our compounds never turn into a drug, they’ll definitely be used as tools to probe the coronavirus on a molecular level and understand what it’s doing,” Frantz said. “They’re like little crescent wrenches we can use to study the living daylights out of this virus.”