Old Drugs, New Tricks: Computational method IDs existing drugs that could fight viruses

Old Drugs, New Tricks: Computational method IDs existing drugs that could fight viruses

Drug development is a long, complex process. A new medication can spend more than a decade in testing before it hits the market. To save time and costs, scientists are seeking novel uses for drugs that already exist.

Feixiong Cheng of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Tennessee, and colleagues have developed a computer-based screening method to identify existing drugs that could potentially be repurposed to fight viruses. This approach could ultimately help accelerate discovery of new antiviral treatments.

When a virus attacks a human cell, it hijacks the cellular machinery to make more copies of itself, which can then attack additional host cells. This means that viruses depend on human genes for successful infection.

Based on this premise, the researchers used lab-grown human cells with randomly introduced mutations to identify hundreds of human genes that are required by viruses for infection, but are not needed by the cells to survive. Drugs that target these genes could potentially thwart viral infection while causing limited harm to human cells.

The researchers ran the potential target genes through a computational framework to investigate whether any existing drugs already have known effects on them. The framework found drug matches for 110 of the target genes, including several involved in HIV-1 and Ebola infection. For example, the anti-arrhythmia drug ajmaline was identified as one potential Ebola treatment.

Additional clinical research will be needed to test the validity of any drug/virus pairings identified using this new method. Still, the researchers hope their screening strategy could speed discovery of treatments for emerging public health threats.

“Infectious diseases result in millions of deaths and cost billions of dollars annually,” says study co-author Donald Rubin. “This innovation will help expedite overcoming obstacles and bottlenecks…that slow the development of new treatments.”

Research Article: Cheng F, Murray JL, Zhao J, Sheng J, Zhao Z, Rubin DH (2016) Systems Biology-Based Investigation of Cellular Antiviral Drug Targets Identified by Gene-Trap Insertional Mutagenesis. PLoS Comput Biol 12(9): e1005074. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005074

Image Credit: Take Three… by The Smurf via Flickr


Sarah is a San Francisco-based science writer and editor. She covers a wide variety of topics, including Earth science, space science, and cancer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *