RESIST-Scientist Professor Pietschmann leads the German part of an international consortium of scientists. This research network is searching for substances that act against SARS-CoV-2 in the world’s largest substance repurposing bank “ReFrame”.

Innovations based on proven active ingredients, new indications for established drugs – the principle of repurposing has often led to success in medicine. This is why it is also used against SARS-CoV-2: In order to quickly find a drug to treat COVID-19, this international research network is searching for substances that act against SARS-CoV-2 in the world’s largest substance repurposing bank “ReFrame”. The collection comprises around 14,000 approved drugs as well as active ingredients for which extensive safety data are already available with regard to their use in humans. Several laboratories in the USA, four in the UK and one each in China and Germany are involved in the search. “ReFrame” was established by Scripps Research, California, in 2018 with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“I am confident that within a few weeks we will find substances that can inhibit the replication of the virus. This will give us a comprehensive picture of the effectiveness of the substances against this corona virus, as the investigations in the various laboratories complement each other,” describes Professor Pietschmann, who is in charge of the research work taking place in Germany. Professor Pietschmann is a scientist of the Cluster of Excellence RESIST, which is led by the Hannover Medical School (MHH), and the TWINCORE-Centre for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research – a joint institution of the MHH and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI).

Professor Pietschmann is working with Professor Dr. Thomas Schulz, RESIST-speaker and Director of the MHH Institute of Virology, to determine whether the reproduction of the virus is inhibited. Their teams are using a robot that is operated within the framework of the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF), of which Professor Schulz and Professor Pietschmann are also members. Their approach uses a genetically modified ‘common cold’ coronavirus developed by Professor Dr. Volker Thiel from the Institute of Virology and Immunology at the University of Bern.

“Once we have found substances that can inhibit the replication of this common coronavirus, we will study them in more detail: we will then test if they also inhibit SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19 and look at how they work in the human lung cell, why they inhibit replication and which dose is required to do so,” explains Professor Pietschmann. Chemical-biological properties of selected active substances are being investigated in cooperation with Professor Dr. Mark Brönstrup, HZI and DZIF. This cooperation is supported by a special grant from the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony, which was approved at short notice to combat the coronavirus crisis.

Based on the results of the research work of Professor Pietschmann and his colleagues, clinical studies can then be carried out. If the drug has already been approved, it might be that the active substance can be developed very quickly for the treatment of COVID-19. If the substance has not yet been approved, it might be possible to build on existing data, which means that approval can be obtained faster than would otherwise be possible. How long this takes depends on the extent to which promising compounds have already been tested in clinical trials.

An example of the repurposing principle is the time required for the substance Remdesivir, which has not yet been approved for the treatment of a disease and is also in the substance collection: When SARS-CoV-2 appeared at the beginning of the year, tests were already being carried out in cell cultures and on experimental animals and also in the context of the Ebola virus crisis in humans. The results of the registration trial for use against COVID-19 are expected in the coming weeks.

“I am very hopeful that our orientation study, which we are making publicly available, will provide starting points for drugs for the treatment of COVID-19,” said Professor Pietschmann.