17 June 2020

Murdoch and Monash funded for potential COVID-19 treatment

Researchers at the Perron Institute, Murdoch University and Monash University have received federal funding for a potential inhalable treatment for COVID-19.

The Federal Health Minister, the Honourable Greg Hunt, recently announced several funded projects as part of the $66 million Medical Research Future Fund Coronavirus Research Response. The fund is part of the Australian Government’s $8 billion Coronavirus (COVID-19) National Health Plan towards a global effort to control and eliminate the virus.

Professor Merlin Thomas at Monash University is leading the project investigating inhaled treatments for COVID-19. In Perth, Professor Steve Wilton is leading the research with Dr May Aung-Htut, both based at Murdoch University.

Professor Wilton is Director of the Perron Institute in Nedlands and the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Innovative Therapeutics at Murdoch University.

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus that uses the cell-surface protein, Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE2), to enter and infect lung cells. Most vaccines and other potential treatments are focusing on blocking the coronavirus. Professors Thomas and Wilton and their teams are taking a different approach and targeting ACE2.

“What we are doing is making the ACE2 surface protein soluble, so instead of COVID-19 being able to latch onto the cell, it floats around. As it can’t attach to the cell, the viral infection should slow down,” Professor Wilton said.

This approach is based on the groundbreaking platform technology for Duchenne muscular dystrophy developed at the Perron Institute by Professors Wilton and Sue Fletcher. Their technology masks the genetic defect, and boys receiving the exon-skipping therapy in the USA are still able to walk without using a wheelchair well beyond the expected age.

“The concept of tricking cells to skip genetic errors to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy evolved during the development of diagnostic screening for neuromuscular diseases,” Professor Wilton said.

“Over the past two decades, we have gained considerable experience in designing this type of treatment in the realm of rare diseases; however, we hadn’t considered extending our research into infectious diseases such as COVID-19 until approached by Professor Thomas.”

“We had been collaborating on other projects for several years. The exciting aspect about the ACE2 research is that it widens the scope of our antisense rare disease research to target the coronavirus.

“The danger of COVID-19 is that it can cause an intense immune response in the lungs. Slowing the infection rate would increase the ability to mount an effective immune response,” Professor Wilton said.

L-R: Dr Ianthe Pitout, Dr May Aung-Htut, Prof Steve Wilton

Image credit: Murdoch University