Biochemist Kenneth Ng joined UWindsor’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in July 2020, bringing with him expertise in anti-viral compounds as well as a federal grant to research medications that might successfully treat those infected with COVID-19.
Dr. Ng and his long-standing collaborator and former University of Calgary colleague Chang-Chun Ling received $416,000 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity competition. The two pivoted their research from 20 years of basic science studies on the molecular structure of viral proteins in order to develop lead compounds, which could become the basis of new medications used to treat a wide range of viruses, including COVID-19.
With time being of the essence in the current pandemic, and since there is a lag of about a decade between developing lead compounds and developing drugs, for this project Ng’s team is studying existing anti-viral medications like Remdesivir. Originally created to treat the Ebola virus, Remdesivir also shows antiviral activity against coronaviruses. The researchers are investigating at the molecular level how to create something that treats COVID-19 more effectively than current drugs.
“Normally the starting point is to understand how enzymes work and then find small molecules called lead compounds to block an enzyme. Each new lead compound is another ‘shot on goal’ that could eventually lead to the development of a more effective drug,” Ng says.
“We are looking at Remdesivir and other compounds targeting the essential polymerase in the coronavirus. Using our understanding of the action of these compounds at the molecular level, we hope to make something even more effective against COVID-19.”
By modifying existing drug treatments already known to work against other viruses in the lab, Ng hopes to create new lead compounds to fight COVID-19, or potentially other viruses that may pop up in future outbreaks.
“As much as for the current pandemic, I am also thinking about the next virus outbreak and we are looking to treat the disease in a way that is complementary to generating vaccines. Different approaches to treating these diseases are valuable to deal with variants that escape the reach of current vaccines or for use in immunocompromised individuals, who have more difficulty fighting off the infection,” says Ng.
“Better preparedness for future outbreaks is one of the positive things that can result from our response to the current COVID crisis: it is crucial we have a broader understanding of antiviral drugs and vaccines to ensure that a range of more effective treatments will be available for the next pandemic.”
Ng uprooted his family as well as a nearly 20-year research career at the University of Calgary, but he used his move to Windsor in the middle of a pandemic to his advantage and created a new undergraduate course in infectious disease to satisfy the demand from UWindsor students.
“Everything has changed, so I had the opportunity to put together an anti-viral therapeutics course for this winter semester,” he says. “Suddenly this is a topic that is very pertinent to students.”
The irony, says Ng, is that he started as an assistant professor in Calgary in 2002 — just as the first SARS coronavirus started spreading. It was one of the things that got him interested in his current line of research.
“That is the story I think which is the most important to tell people — that while many are thinking about viruses and the havoc that they can obviously wreak on our lives, we should prioritize ‘pandemic preparedness’ to be ready for the next virus,” he says.
“By the end of the year, we hope to have something that could help in the future.”