OXFORD, UK, April 3, 2020 (Ecology Prime News) – A new high-tech transatlantic partnership is working overtime to identify antiviral treatments for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China in late December. The virus has now spread to every country in the world, infecting over a million people and killing more than 50,000.

Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron light source located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, today announced a joint initiative with Oxford University and Calibr, the drug development division of Scripps Research. They will search for clinically approved drugs that could be viable candidates for the rapid treatment of COVID-19.

Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron light source at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire is shaped like a giant ring. (video screengrab courtesy Diamond Light Source)

A synchrotron light source produces electromagnetic radiation for scientific and technical purposes. Shaped like a huge ring, it accelerates electrons to produce a light 10 billion times brighter than the Sun.

The level of automation at the Diamond synchrotron allows ultra-high throughput screening methods so many samples can be analyzed in great detail quickly.

Rounding out the joint initiative is Exscientia, a drug discovery company based in Oxford driven by artificial intelligence (AI). Founded as a spin-off from the University of Dundee, Exscientia was the first company to automate drug discovery.

The three UK collaborators – Diamond Light Source, Oxford University and Exscientia – have been working together since January to understand the COVID-19 disease.

Through this alliance, Exscientia has gained access to Calibr’s world-leading collection of 15,000 clinically-ready molecules. It includes launched drugs, compounds already been shown to be safe in humans, and promising compounds that have passed pre-clinical safety studies. 

This collection, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be shipped from the Scripps Research in La Jolla, California to Exscientia in Oxford.

Exscientia will apply its advanced biosensor platforms to rapidly screen the complete collection against key viral drug targets of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. 

Dr. Martin Redhead, who heads the Quantitative Pharmacology unit at Exscientia, will carry out the analysis. “Given the ever-expanding scale and rapid speed at which COVID-19 is spreading, one of the most urgent needs right now is to find ways to discover an existing drug we can repurpose to treat the virus, at speed and at scale,” Dr. Redhead said. 

“The Scripps Research collection allows us to screen nearly every drug that has been tested in human clinical trials, against a number of virus drug targets,” he explained.

Professor Dave Stuart, director of Life Sciences at Diamond Light Source and a professor of structural biology at Oxford University, is co-ordinating the effort. “The drugs we are testing have either been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for other diseases or have been extensively tested for human safety,” he said.

“By being able to repurpose existing molecules, we can save a lot of time in the drug discovery process,” Stuart said, “meaning a faster route to clinical trials, and potentially to treatment for patients.”


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