Researchers around the world are working against the clock to find vaccines, therapies and other tools to help manage the international healthcare crisis caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. At Biocat, we’ve identified some of the initiatives underway in the BioRegion of Catalonia.
Qiagen, which acquired Catalan company Stat-Dx in 2018, has developed a system to detect the virus in one hour using a sample from a nose swab. This helps doctors with triage and gives them an answer within the hour for the most urgent cases. One strength of these tests is that the device is small, so testing can be done at airports or border crossings. The product has just been granted CE-IVD marking for in-vitro diagnostics in Europe and the company is working to get emergency certification from the FDA in the United States.
The Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology is leading the CONVAT project to kick off a point-of-care platform for quick diagnosis and monitoring of the coronavirus. The goal: to provide a new nanotechnology device using biosensors that can detect the coronavirus in just 30 minutes, from a patient sample without laboratory analysis. The platform will also analyze different types of coronaviruses in reservoir animals in order to monitor and watch for any progression of these viruses and prevent against infectious outbreaks in humans in the future. The 2-year CONVAT project has received funding through the European Commission emergency call and is being carried out with collaboration from the University of Barcelona, as well as Italy and France.
The Catalan Ministry of Health and researcher Oriol Mitjà of the Institute of Research Germans Trias i Pujol (Can Ruti) are leading a clinical trial that kicked off on March 16 to study pre-exposure prophylaxis so that those affected won’t pass on the virus, but also so that the people they come in contact with don’t develop the disease. The trial is giving infected participants an antiretroviral to decrease their viral load, shortening the time they are potentially contagious; and those who have possibly had contact with those infected are being given an antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, to protect them from being infected. Nearly 3,000 people are participating in the study, including 195 infected patients in the Can Ruti sphere of influence and the Òdena Basin, plus roughly 15 contacts for each one. Results are expected within 3 weeks. The trial has received funding from the Catalan Ministry of Health, the Fight AIDS Foundation and the laboratories that have provided the drugs. A crowdfunding campaign has also been launched for donations starting at €5: www.joemcorono.com / www.yomecorono.com.
The Animal Health Research Center (CReSA), part of the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA), the AIDS Research Institute (IrsiCaixa) and the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) have set up a consortium to find an antiviral drug for people who have already been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and to design and test a vaccine that works against all coronaviruses. Researchers at IRTA-CReSA and the UAB detected that the target protein to study is the S protein, which is part of the packaging of the coronavirus. The BSC will carry out the bioinformatics predictions to get more detailed information on how the virus’ S proteins interact with receptors in human cells. From these predictions, IrsiCaixa will test the antiviral effect of the antibodies designed and, working towards a vaccine, develop a prototype based on the institute’s own technology that would incorporate part of the virus’ S protein. Finally, to prove the efficacy of the antibodies designed as an antiviral treatment and as a vaccine, they will have to be tested in an animal model, by the coronavirus research team at IRTA-CReSA. According to researchers, an antiviral treatment could be available on the market in less than a year, though the vaccine could take between 5 and 10 years.
Catalan company BCN Peptides is part of one of the consortia that will receive funding from the European Commission for a coronavirus project. It is a clinical trial on a peptide (SOLNATIDE) that is used in patients in the final stages of pneumonia, and could therefore be useful in coronavirus patients who develop very serious cases of pneumonia. The active ingredient has already been tested in previous clinical trials and has been proven safe (non-toxic). This consortium aims to make SOLNATIDE available to coronavirus patients. The molecule is indicated for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). The mechanism of action is on the alveolar level, helping recover the endothelial-epithelial barrier in alveoli to aid with lung function. It is an emergency hospital product, so it can only be used on patients with severe pneumonia. BCN Peptides is one of the five partners in the consortium. The company is manufacturing the active ingredient, as it did in previous studies on this product, and will also be contributing all of its know-how on the structure and conformational features of the peptide. The other partners include Apeptico (Austria) (which owns the molecule), Medical University Munich Hospital (Germany) and Opis SRL (Italy).
The BSC is also taking part in the EXSCALATE4CoV (E4C) project, which aims to use high-performance computing to promote smart in silico drug design and thus cut the time it takes to create drugs. Three of the most powerful computer centers in Europe are working on this project: CNS, CINECA, and Julich, as well as centers that specialize in bioinformatics and molecular biology, and European universities. The project has also received funding through the European Commission emergency call.
The Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology lab at IRB Barcelona is participating in the RiPCoN project with other European centers. This project will use computers to study how the coronavirus interacts with human cells in order to identify drugs already on the market or in development that could help stop the spread of the virus. It has also received funding through the European Commission emergency call.
Researchers at IQS have developed an inhibitor that seems like it could attack one of the SARS-CoV-2 receptors, according to the first results of the computational study. The lab had already synthesized the product for a previous project on Hepatitis C and decided to do a computational study on it regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus protease, as its molecule interacts with the NS5B polymerase of the Hepatitis C virus. The project has been submitted to the European Commission call and to several public and private centers to consider an in vitro test, as samples are available.
The IBEC is working with other international institutions to explore the option of blocking a critical receptor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, using organoid technology. For this purpose, IBEC exploded cutting-edge technology in bioengineering and uses kidney organoids to explore the molecular mechanisms that block the replication of SARS-CoV-2. Additionally, the IBEC is preparing a proposal to develop a diagnostic device and therapies to fight coronavirus infections.
Grifols has announced that, with its Chinese partner Xangai RAAS, it is accelerating development of analysis and diagnostic methods to detect coronavirus and is working with international health authorities to “develop a potential antiviral treatment with immunoglobulins” sharing their experience with convalescent plasma (plasma with antibodies to fight the virus).
Catalan company UniversalDoctor has co-developed the EpidemiXs app in collaboration with organizations that have helped compile the sources and create guides and videos, including the Catalan Society of Family and Community Medicine (CAMFiC), Hospital Clinic Barcelona, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, the Barcelona Medical Association (COMB), the Official College of Nursing of Barcelona (COIB) and ISGlobal, among others. A group of volunteer healthcare workers continues to contribute to and review the archive, which is open to collaboration from other institutions.
Researchers at Rovira i Virgili University and the University of Zaragoza have developed a mathematical model that allows them to predict the risk of new cases in Spain. The results are updated daily on a map that is open to the public. The goal? To get out ahead of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and take effective control measures. The model also takes into account transfer from asymptomatic individuals, one of the hurdles in controlling the spread of the disease.
August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) is participating in the ECMOCARD project to identify biomarkers that help determine the severity of patients with Covid-19. It is a multi-center study that is compiling clinical data from patients with Covid-19 who require mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).
Catalan company HumanITcare has announced it will give hospitals free access to its platform so they can supervise infected patients remotely, in their homes. The platform is made up of an app for Android or iOS, which connects automatically to the web platform of the healthcare professional so they can monitor the patient’s symptoms. Using the same platform, healthcare institutions could see which areas of their cities have more patients with Covid-19, thanks to location information provided by the patients themselves.
On March 18, the Catalan Ministry of Health presented its mobile app StopCovid19Cat where residents in Catalonia can get information on their symptoms from home. The aim is for the healthcare system, the Emergency Medical System (SEM) and Civil Protection to be able to monitor patients and see how the pandemic is progressing. Healthcare professionals who have helped develop the app will answer questions from patients.
Catalan company Mediktor has launched an online test that assesses the symptoms of Covid-19 using artificial intelligence. It is available in several languages in order to provide support for healthcare systems around the world. It is a pre-diagnostic test and not a substitute for professional medical diagnosis. The user answers a series of questions and the system gives them their chances of being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus or other possible conditions that have similar symptoms, plus a recommendation of what to do next.
The OxyGEN project proposes an emergency mechanism to automate an Ambu-style manual ventilator in situations of extreme need, like those Covid-19 is causing in some parts of the world. The plans and instructions for the device are already available for free and, according to its creators, it can be put together in just a few hours, without specialized tools or training. All the pieces for the product are easy to get anywhere in the world: you just need a bit of ingenuity, a windshield-wiper motor and a few basic materials. The idea was made possible through a collaboration of various people and organizations, including PROTOFY, Joca, Ap0, CovidWarriors, CoronavirusMakers and Zocama.