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New success in the fight against the coronavirus: Hungarian researchers discovered how the Delta variant infects
18 February 2022
Modified: 21 November 2023
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In a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic, researchers from Pharmacoidea Kft., Szeged have unravelled the secret of the increased infectivity of the dreaded Delta variant, which triggered a new wave of epidemics in 2021. In the project funded by a HUF 350 million grant from the “Investment in the Future” programme and implemented in university-research institute-enterprise cooperation, Dr Tamás Letoha and his research team have successfully elucidated the mechanism of infection. This allows the development of molecularly targeted yet simple strategies to reduce the spread of newer variants and effectively treat the diseases they cause.

The Investment in the Future programme, funded from the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund, will allocate HUF 7 billion to support research and development projects for the early diagnosis and treatment of diseases with significant public health risks. The project entitled “Integrated diagnostic, therapeutic and public health RDI platform for rational control of the coronavirus epidemic”, with a budget of HUF 388.7 million, will be supported by the call for proposals with HUF 350 million. The 3-year project, including applied research and experimental development is implemented in a university-research institute-company cooperation; the members of the consortium led by Pharmacoidea Kft. are Szeged Biological Research Centre, National Korányi Institute of Pulmonology, University of Szeged, Human Resources Support Agency.

Pharmacoidea Kft., an innovative biotechnology company from the Southern Great Plain Region, has formed a consortium within the framework of a project supported by the National Research, Development and Innovation Office, combining its own drug development experience and knowledge with the expertise of researchers from the Szeged Biological Research Centre, the National Korányi Institute of Pulmonology and the University of Szeged, as well as the Human Resources Support Agency. This will accelerate the development of diagnostic and therapeutic procedures against coronaviruses, as well as the development of IT-based screening systems and their rapid application in healthcare. This discovery is a major step forward not only in containing the Delta variant, but also in dealing with other variants that may emerge in the future

The variants of the coronavirus continue to pose new challenges to epidemiologists. While the pathogen was thought to enter the human body through the ACE2 enzyme in cells, most drug research has also sought to block this connection. However, researchers at Pharmacoidea Kft. in Szeged have shown that the Delta variant owes its increased infectivity to the fact that it also enters cells by other means: it finds a “loophole” in our previously established defence lines by binding to the so-called cell surface glycoproteins

Pharmacoidea Kft. has been involved in Europe’s largest drug development programme for ten years. Through research carried out under the Innovative Medicines Initiative, Pharmacoidea is focusing on the role of cell surface glycoproteins in various diseases to pave the way for targeted and effective therapeutic approaches. “Cell surface glycoproteins are like pine trees: the trunk is the protein, the branches are the sugar chains and the branch ends are the protein-binding regions, with a compound called heparin”, Dr Tamás Letoha explains.

The leader of the research team said that they were already certain at the start of the coronavirus outbreak that the reason the virus infects the lungs so easily is to be search for at the molecular level. “We started, by building on our previous research, to analyse the cellular interactions of spike proteins on the virus, and then experiments with inactivated virus confirmed the heparin-binding property. This means that the coronavirus can bind very effectively to cell surface glycoproteins in certain parts of the human body and through these to enter cells.” In May 2020, the researchers filed a national and then an international patent for their procedure to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection

Subsequently, the Delta variant emerged, which was orders of magnitude more infectious than the original strain. Recent studies by the research team have shown that the mutated virus binds strongly to the type of glycoproteins that is abundant in the lungs, which is why the Delta variant is able to enter the body much more easily and infect many more lung cells. The new research findings were recently published in Special Issue of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences on SARS-CoV-2

The discovery of the Szeged researchers could have a huge impact on prevention and treatment. Heparin is the active ingredient in a medicine that has been known and widely used for decades as an anticoagulant. Since the Delta variant “likes” heparin, it is certain that in the future these active ingredients will also be indispensable in our arsenal against the coronavirus, and their use, in addition to other antiviral therapies, could be an effective weapon in the control of the Delta variant. In the race against the coronavirus, the fact that professionals do not have to focus on the time-, labour- and cost-intensive development of yet another drug is a huge advantage, as heparin derivatives are already known and readily available active ingredients that will save many lives.

Updated: 21 November 2023
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