Collaboration in chemistry could lead to a cure for the virus

Charles River Chemistry Group Leader Paul Winship sees medicinal chemistry as cyclical – inching drug test cycles forward by degrees and relying on the short-term motivation of “making small changes to slowly get through the challenges ahead of you.” His perspective is important for someone who works in the early stages of drug development, where only a few of the projects he contributes to will go on to later stages.

He knows that there is a bigger picture – which has never been more true than in the current COVID-19 climate. The world is crying out for treatments while scientists like Paul are working under unprecedented conditions. They have lost the easy, in person communication that made working with coworkers so simple. Paul’s work can be done by computer, so since March 18th he has been home in Saffron Walden, UK instead of in the offices and labs of Charles River’s nearby site at Chesterford Park. No more quick check-ins with colleagues, no more lunch meetings or hallway questions or “when you get a minutes.”

But for scientists, necessity is the mother of invention. In place of the easy camaraderie of in-person meetings, a larger global community of like-minded people have found each other. For Paul and other scientists in medical sciences, those like-minded people are working as fast as they can to slap this virus back down to the control of human will. For some research scientists and companies, that goal is more important than business competition – and in the case of a few companies in the UK, collaboration and open-source data has replaced secrecy and proprietary data.

Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron in the UK, and the medicinal chemistry company PostEra teamed up to search for possible COVID-19 treatments in March. Using the known crystal structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’ main protease that had been published by Chinese scientists in January, Diamond researchers began searching for molecular fragments that could bind to the protease. The hope is to find a compound that binds to this protease in order to disrupt the virus’ ability to infect host cells. After finding 66 potential active fragments, the two companies sent out a call to researchers around the world: using these fragments, send us your best ideas for binding compounds.

“We put a small team of people together to start looking at the output from this fragment screen to come up with potential ideas,” Paul said. His was one of many labs that responded to what the companies involved called the COVID Moonshot. Many, like Paul, who understand the numbers game that is early drug discovery, were quick to contribute their ideas

Paul and his team came up with twenty compounds to add to the growing pile of possibilities for the project. PostEra have assessed all suggestions and will prioritize the most likely candidates, which will be synthesized by Enamine and then tested by the University of Oxford – coincidentally, Paul’s alma mater.

Though it will still be several years at least before this process results in a useable treatment, Paul has many motivations to help in any way he can. His sister, a nurse, is currently working in a COVID-19 ward. He and his wife (a patent attorney) are expecting their first child in August. And of course, like the rest of us, he is simply eager to resume normal life when it is safe to do so.

Until the quarantine is lifted, Paul and his wife will replace twice yearly holidays with odd jobs, barbeques for two, and painting the nursery. And of course, he will continue to contribute to any opportunity to help us all out of this crisis.

“It’s the thought of making a difference, the idea that you could be working on something that could one day be a drug and help so many people, you know?”