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Australia joins global research bid to block coronavirus

Health & Medical

One of South Australia’s top molecular biologists is teaming up with a world leader in artificial intelligence-based drug discovery to find a way to block coronavirus from infecting human cells.

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Dr Gokhan Cildir has joined forces with San Francisco company Atomwise to collaborate on research using artificial intelligence to discover compounds that could successfully fight SARS-CoV-2.

“I believe there is a very high chance we will get a vaccine in the next year, but our own approach is to find the compound which can actually block SARS-CoV-2 because it will be impossible to vaccinate everyone in the world, especially the most vulnerable,” Dr Cildir, from the University of South Australia, said.

From millions of molecules screened virtually, Atomwise has identified likely contenders and has sent those compounds to Dr Cildir to test at the Centre for Cancer Biology in the state capital of Adelaide.

The goal is to develop inhibitors for the ‘spike’ protein used by SARS-CoV-2 to invade human cells.

“Although coronavirus uses many different proteins to replicate and invade cells, the spike protein is the major cell surface protein that it uses to bind to a host receptor — another protein that acts like a doorway into a human cell,” Dr Cildir said.

During the next six to 12 months, the team hopes to identify compounds, which could potentially be patented and tested in vitro and animal models before undertaking any clinical trials in humans.

Atomwise is leveraging its artificial intelligence-based drug discovery model for several other projects in the fight against COVID-19.

There are currently 15 efforts underway and the company anticipates that number will grow.

Dr Cildir has collaborated with Atomwise before on other work, but this is his first virology project.

“It is like looking for a needle in a haystack but if we are successful it will be a world first, so we are very excited about the possibilities,” he said.

Dr Cildir, who is funded by The Hospital Research Foundation, is a postdoctoral researcher based in the Centre for Cancer Biology’s (CCB) Allergy and Cancer Immunology Laboratory led by Dr Damon Tumes.

The CCB is an alliance between SA Pathology and the University of South Australia and has the largest concentration of cancer research in South Australia, currently hosting 22 full-time research group leaders and their teams.

Dr Cildir joined UniSA in late 2016 after completing his PhD at the National University of Singapore in the School of Medicine.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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