Hungarian researchers are working with the Dutch Virus Hunter, a living legend of virology

English2020. ápr. 26.Növekedé

Hungarian researchers are also collaborating with an international research team that has achieved important results in the development of an experimental antidote to coronavirus. Tamás Letoha, head of the Pharmacoidea research institute in Szeged, has been working for years with one of the leaders of the research team, Professor Albert Osterhaus, who is commonly referred to as the Virus Hunter. We asked Tamás Letoha about the results of the joint research.

What results has Professor Osterhaus's research team achieved about the antidote to coronavirus?

Albert Osterhaus, or as he is called by his peers, the Virus Hunter, the living legend of virology and his colleagues have now developed antibodies that, by sticking to the surface of the coronavirus, stop it from binding to the host cell, thus preventing the infection. It has been an honour to have been working with Albert and his colleagues for years on the EU’s largest drug development program, the Innovative Medicine Initiative.

How many researchers work in the team? Where do they come from and what is their original field of research?

There are several of us working in the international consortium. The task of the team led by Albert Osterhaus and the pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and Pfizer is to understand the mechanism by which viruses enter into the brain and thus to develop new brain-specific drugs for the therapy of neurological diseases.

How did you become a member of the team, who contacted you?

It was me, in April 2016, who initiated the establishment of the international working group. At that time, it was clear that despite the thousands of billions of EU subsidies for Hungary, I could not receive any funding from the Innovation Office led by József Pálinkás to finance our research. Therefore, in order to continue the work I had begun, I needed the international support that was available through the Innovative Medicine Initiative. Albert Osterhaus’s call came within half an hour of my email request. After he said yes, we spent five months working out a project plan, which was eventually found worthy of support by the management of the Innovative Medicine Initiative.

What is the main goal of your research?

By understanding the mechanism of the way how specific viruses enter into the brain, to develop more effective therapeutic methods against brain diseases.

What progress have you made so far?

For 3 out of the 4 viruses used as models, we have more or less succeeded in mapping the mechanism of how they enter the brain.

When can we expect results?

With my fellow researchers at Pharmacoidea we have already patented a method for delivering antibodies into the brain. Due to the protection of industrial property rights, I cannot publish the scientific announcement before the end of the year.

Why did you have to start your own research?

So that the developments could be used directly in drug development, i.e. our research should have practical benefits.

How many resources are available?

Grants which are available through the Innovative Medicine Initiative are much more modest than those available in Hungary. In our project, Albert Osterhaus, like everyone else, receives 300,000 euros, or roughly 100 million forints, for his five-year work, which is merely a fraction of the subsidies that were distributed from EU grants to the Hungarian academic elite by Mr. József Pálinkás.

Do you meet in person?

Members of the working group meet regularly in person and by telephone. Now, because of the coronavirus situation, discussions are restricted to telepresences.

Who coordinates and leads the research?

Along with Albert Osterhaus, research is being led by a neurologist at Oxford University, Professor Zameel Cader, and the pharmaceutical companies Sanofi and Pfizer.

Success in finding an antidote to coronavirus

As Dutch News reported recently, Osterhaus’s research team has discovered an antibody that could lead to an antidote to the coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of Utrecht and the Erasmus University Medical Center have developed an antibody that they claim could “potentially prevent the COVID-19 infection or help its treatment”.

However, even though the discovery seems promising, it is important not to nurture false hopes. It is still too early to expect that the antidote will eventually work in humans, says Berend-Jan Bosch, head of the research, about the results so far.

Researchers are currently working so that mass production of the antibody as a drug could start with the involvement of a pharmaceutical company.

Before the antibody can be launched onto the market it must go through further development and testing phases. This process is already in progress, Frank Grosveld told Erasmus Magazine about the results so far. He said that apart from drug development they also want to work on the development of a diagnostic test that everyone can do at home so they can easily find out if they are infected or not. According to the plan, the drug would stop the infection and give the patient time to recover.

The real solution would be to develop a vaccine, which other researchers are already working on. However, it can take up to two years to develop a vaccine, while the development of the new drug can be completed sooner if everything goes according to plan. The downside is that it is more expensive to manufacture.

The article also cites Albert Osterhaus, a virologist working in the research team, who said that despite promising results the conversion of the antibody into a drug could still fail at many points. A significant part of similar attempts fail to deliver. According to the professor, it would be unrealistic to imagine that it is enough to produce a few pounds of this drug and the world will be saved from the coronavirus pandemic.