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Three Vall d'Hebron research projects will receive funding from the Department of Health

Tuesday, 7 April, 2020

It is expected that some of the selected projects will be able to reach patients before the end of the year and provide clinical assistance with new tools to combat SARS-CoV-2, as scientific evidence is obtained. 

This afternoon the Consellera de Salut, Alba Vergés, has announced the projects that will receive funding from the emergency call promoted by the Catalonian Department of Health through the General Directorate of Research and Innovation in Health (DGRIS) with the collaboration of AQuAS and Biocat and addressed to the centers of the alliance IRISCAT (Institutes of Research and Innovation in Health of Catalonia). Two fo them from the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR) which are led by doctors María José Buzón and Meritxell Genescà, and by Josep Quer and Andrés Antón, respectively;and one project from de Vall d'Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO) led by Dr. Joan Seoane.

In total, the DGRIS will finance a total of 19 research and innovation projects for the prevention and treatment of Covid-19 disease with 4 million euros. Projects to be funded include Covid-19 therapies (new therapies, antibody and plasma therapies, clinical trials with new combinations and uses of drugs already on the market, and clinical trials with investigational drugs for other indications); vaccines and preventive treatments; genetic studies and predictive studies (identification of virulence factors and prognostic biomarkers, and projects to study the population's immune response and prediction of complications).

It is expected that some of the selected projects will be able to reach patients before the end of the year and provide clinical assistance with new tools to combat SARS-CoV-2, as scientific evidence is obtained.

VHIR - Identification of replacement drugs that inhibit the entry of SARS-CoV-2 in explants of human lung tissue 

The project led by doctors María José Buzón, head of the HIV Translational Research line in the research group on Infectious Diseases at VHIR and Meritxell Genescà, principal investigator of the same group, will evaluate different drugs with the potential to block the main pathways of SARS-CoV-2 entry into a human lung explant model (live tissue in culture).
 
There are several natural compounds and drugs used for other diseases that could have an effect blocking the entry of SARS-CoV-2 to type II alveolar epithelial cells, which are the main target of the virus in lung tissue. However, many of these results have been generated in irrelevant models without taking into account the complexity of lung tissue with different cell types that can express molecules relevant to infection and the interaction between these cells. The project will evaluate the effect that these compounds and drugs have by preventing the viral entry of SARS-CoV-2 and other betacoronaviruses in models of human lung tissue in order to obtain more physiological results that are easily transferable to the clinic.
 

VHIR - Complete SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing in severe and mild Covid-19 patients to identify prognostic factors and virulence

The project led by Dr. Josep Quer, principal investigator and head of hepatitis C virus research, in the VHIR research group on Liver Diseases has already become a reality in managing to sequence the SARS-CoV genome- 2 in two patients from Vall d'Hebron using state-of-the-art massive sequencing techniques. The intention is to continue sequencing the entire SARS-CoV-2 genome to obtain relevant information on the characteristics of the virus, its natural evolution and its weaknesses.
 
The study has four main objectives:
 
  • The first is to read the entire SARS-CoV-2 genome using the latest generation sequencing technology. This procedure may be adapted to other emergency situations for other possible infectious agents in the future.
  • The second, to study the genetic diversity of viruses isolated from patients with mild and severe Covid-19 to identify viral factors associated with virus virulence.
  • The third, to identify differences between viral genomes isolated from the upper and lower airways, which could determine the viral diversity within the host and the transmission capacity of the virus.
  • And the fourth, to identify highly conserved regions in the virus genome (which are the ones that should be attempted to attack) for the search for direct-acting antiviral drugs and the design of vaccines.
 

VHIO - Repositioning of the therapeutic anti-LIF body as activator of the immune system of pactients with COVID-19  

Dr. Joan Seoane, Head of the VHIO Cancer Gene Expression Laboratory, co-director of the VHIO Pre-clinical and Translational Research program and professor ICREA leads a project to reposition an antibody against cancer as a potential treatment for cancer. Covid-19. Repositioning consists of seeking new therapeutic applications for an existing treatment, in this case, a therapeutic anti-LIF antibody, initially designed for cancer treatment, as an activator of the immune system of patients with Covid-19.

LIF is an immunosuppressive molecule that plays a crucial role in the implantation of the embryo in the maternal uterus, since it protects the embryo from the mother's immune system. Previous studies have shown that LIF is found at very high levels in some tumors, preventing the patient's immune system from destroying them. LIF has also been found to induce some tumor-associated viruses, and even other types of infections.

The project will identify whether SARS-CoV-2 is one of the viruses that LIF uses to prevent the immune system of patients from recognizing it. If so, LIF could be attacked with an antiviral drug blocking it, so the patient's immune system could detect the virus and attack it, thereby preventing infection.

Dr. Seoane's team has developed an antibody that attacks LIF in tumors (MSC1) in previous studies and is already in the clinical trial phase. Thus, if SARS-CoV-2 is confirmed to use LIF, it will be tested whether MSC1 is also effective against Covid-19.

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