The Costa Rican company Speratum is developing a potential molecular therapy against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This was pointed out by the molecular biologist Christian Marín.
Since 2014, Speratum has been working with a technology called RNA interference (RNAi). It is a natural process that occurs in our cells by which small ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules regulate others. The expert explained that the therapy attacks cancer cells, but could also be applied against the Coronavirus.
“Through machinery called RNAi, micro RNAs regulate the level of messenger RNA. These molecules have a structure as if they were a little key, and they must be recognized by the machinery that processes them,” explained Marín.
Micro RNA is a molecule present at high levels in our cells and acts as a brake on cell growth.
“When processed, they leave a mature micro RNA, which is complementary to a ‘target’. This target is a messenger RNA. These small micro RNA molecules adhere to messenger RNA by complementarity and destroy it”, explained the biologist.
Marín, a molecular virologist and microbiologist, has spent 10 years designing a therapy against pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive known and with the highest incidence of deaths.
The expert pointed out that in cancer this molecule acts as a tumor suppressor. When micro RNA is missing it allows growth factors to be overexpressed without limit and restraint. Thus, cells begin to grow and migrate, invade adjacent tissues, spread through the blood, and metastasize to other parts of the body. “And eventually the cells become resistant to chemotherapy,” he said.
In the laboratory they generated a synthetic version of these molecules, called the mimic, because it mimics the natural molecule but has certain improvements: it is more stable, more effective, and more powerful. “We use mimicry to raise the level of the molecule in tumors and stop cancer growth.
Through a nanoparticle, a kind of sphere that protects the mimic, which allows them to be injected through the blood so that they flow through the body and accumulate in tumors”, revealed Marín.
How to apply it for COVID-19?
The structure of these mimics and the nanoparticle is a flexible and adaptable technology. “We can design a molecule that instead of attacking carcinogenic factors, attacks viruses”, assured the virologist.
“We have designed a mimic that can attack viral RNA, and it has certain mechanisms that allow us to use this RNAi to lower the virus level. Then, we make modifications to our nanoparticles to specifically target cells that are susceptible or infected by the virus”, added the expert.
This therapy is still in a very early proof-of-concept stage, as it has never been used for viruses. “It is based on all our experience and capabilities so I hope it is one of these potential drugs that will develop quickly,” he said.
Speratum is working in an alliance with the pharmaceutical company Roche to be able to take these first steps of development, with which it is intended to complete this proof of concept. Also, live virus tests would be carried out in a laboratory in the United States, and then tests with animals to analyze the safety and effectiveness of the therapy.
The estimated time ranges from 6 to 8 months throughout the process, which will depend on the availability of resources and infrastructure. The hope is that this therapy could become an antiviral for other forms of viruses.
Speratum’s team is made up of 10 professionals who work in an interdisciplinary way. They have biologists, biotechnologists, veterinarians, microbiologists, chemists, chemical engineers, and doctors. Also, Carao Ventures, a partner at Speratum, manages the entrepreneurial part of the business.
To develop and implement a therapy like this, a series of requirements such as regulations before the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (FDA for its acronym in English) is needed.
“The manufacturing and quality control processes that we have to comply with; we don’t have those experiences. That is why we work with experts from all over the world who guide us to create all these different stages”, specified Marín.
“We need scientists and experts of all kinds that we can turn to when we need them. Hopefully, we continue to lead our country with science and hopefully, new generations are inspired and excited to see what science can achieve in our lives and that we have many more scientists in the future”, concluded the scientist.