Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen, Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship 2006

Superdrug identified in fight against deadly viruses

29 January 2019

A team of University of Hong Kong microbiologists, led by Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen (Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship 2006) and Dr Shuofeng Yuan, has identified a novel broad-spectrum antiviral drug with the potential for use in epidemic control, including an outbreak of deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Respiratory viruses such as SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), H5N1, and H7N9 produce intracellular lipid membrane vesicles in order to replicate in human cells. To stop such replication, the HKU researchers sought to find a host target that controls lipid production and a drug that could target this host.

In their study, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications in January 2019, the scientists discovered that the chemical compound AM580 can inhibit the activities of a range of viruses. Currently, ribavirin, which has previously been used to treat SARS, is the only approved broad-spectrum antiviral drug.

Rather than attacking viruses, AM580 stops them from multiplying by making changes to the host’s cells, the researchers found. AM580 prevents the cell protein SREBP and DNA sequence SRE from binding. The binding process leads to the production of fatty acid, which is essential for most types of virus to replicate. Inhibiting binding can thus prevent the virus from replicating.

Research findings showed that MERS-infected mice that received AM580 had a 100 per cent survival rate. They also experienced less weight loss compared with those not provided with the drug compound. Viral infection in the lungs and brains of infected mice not given the compound was also found to be 10,000 times that of mice provided with the compound.

The scientists observed similar results in mice infected with the H7N9 virus, though outcomes were less effective than for those given zanamivir, a medication already used to treat influenza A and B viruses.

Screening of a bioactive lipid library showed that AM580 can inhibit the activities of seven to eight types of virus. These include SARS but not HIV. “AM580 covers a broader spectrum than known drugs, such as ribavirin. It is also more potent than ribavirin in many aspects,” Yuen said. a US patent being filed.

While further studies would be needed on larger mammals, such as monkeys, followed by clinical trials on humans, Yuen hoped the antiviral could be made available within five years. “This is a drug with great potential,” he said.

Professor Kwok-Yung Yuen received the Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship in 2006. He played a key role in the discovery of the SARS coronavirus, leading to measures that were crucial in containing the disease. He and his team have revealed further disease agents including the novel human coronavirus HKU1, bat SARS coronavirus, bat coronavirus HKU2 to 24, Laribacter hongkongensis, and many other bacteria named after Hong Kong or China. He published the first clinical and laboratory diagnostic paper on Influenza A (H5N1) in The Lancet, an article cited over 400 times since 1998, and a review paper on this subject in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005.

To view Kwok-Yung Yuen’s Croucher profile, please click here.