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A COVID-19 moonshot program challenged chemists around the world to submit ideas for how best to design a drug to target the virus.

(© By Photocreo Bednarek/Adobe)

By mid-March, Alpha Lee was growing restless. A pioneer of AI-driven drug discovery, Lee leads a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, but his lab had been closed amidst the government-initiated lockdowns spreading inexorably across Europe.

If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.

Having spoken to his collaborators across the globe – many of whom were seeing their own experiments and research projects postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic – he noticed a similar sense of frustration and helplessness in the face of COVID-19.

While there was talk of finding a novel treatment for the virus, Lee was well aware the process was likely to be long and laborious. Traditional methods of drug discovery risked suffering the same fate as the efforts to find a cure for SARS in the early 2000, which took years and were ultimately abandoned long before a drug ever reached the market.

To avoid such an outcome, Lee was convinced that global collaboration was required. Together with a collection of scientists in the UK, US and Israel, he launched the 'COVID Moonshot' – a project which encouraged chemists worldwide to share their ideas for potential drug designs. If the Moonshot proves successful, they hope it could serve as a future benchmark for finding new medicines for chronic diseases.

Solving a Complex Jigsaw

In February, ShanghaiTech University published the first detailed snapshots of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus's proteins using a technique called X-ray crystallography. In particular, they revealed a high-resolution profile of the virus's main protease – the part of its structure that enables it to replicate inside a host – and the main drug target. The images were tantalizing.

"We could see all the tiny pieces sitting in the structure like pieces of a jigsaw," said Lee. "All we needed was for someone to come up with the best idea of joining these pieces together with a drug. Then you'd be left with a strong molecule which sits in the protease, and stops it from working, killing the virus in the process."

Normally, ideas for how best to design such a drug would be kept as carefully guarded secrets within individual labs and companies due to their potential value. But as a result, the steady process of trial and error to reach an optimum design can take years to come to fruition.

However, given the scale of the global emergency, Lee felt that the scientific community would be open to collective brainstorming on a mass scale. "Big Pharma usually wouldn't necessarily do this, but time is of the essence here," he said. "It was a case of, 'Let's just rethink every drug discovery stage to see -- ok, how can we go as fast as we can?'"

On March 13, he launched the COVID moonshot, calling for chemists around the globe to come up with the most creative ideas they could think of, on their laptops at home. No design was too weird or wacky to be considered, and crucially nothing would be patented. The entire project would be done on a not-for-profit basis, meaning that any drug that makes it to market will have been created simply for the good of humanity.

It caught fire: Within just two weeks, more than 2,300 potential drug designs had been submitted. By the middle of July, over 10,000 had been received from scientists around the globe.

The Road Toward Clinical Trials

With so many designs to choose from, the team has been attempting to whittle them down to a shortlist of the most promising. Computational drug discovery experts at Diamond and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have enabled the Moonshot team to develop algorithms for predicting how quick and easy each design would be to make, and to predict how well each proposed drug might bind to the virus in real life.

The latter is an approach known as computational covalent docking and has previously been used in cancer research. "This was becoming more popular even before COVID-19, with several covalent drugs approved by the FDA in recent years," said Nir London, professor of organic chemistry at the Weizmann Institute, and one of the Moonshot team members. "However, all of these were for oncology. A covalent drug against SARS-CoV-2 will certainly highlight covalent drug-discovery as a viable option."

Through this approach, the team have selected 850 compounds to date, which they have manufactured and tested in various preclinical trials already. Fifty of these compounds - which appear to be especially promising when it comes to killing the virus in a test tube – are now being optimized further.

Lee is hoping that at least one of these potential drugs will be shown to be effective in curing animals of COVID-19 within the next six months, a step that would allow the Moonshot team to reach out to potential pharmaceutical partners to test their compounds in humans.

Future Implications

If the project does succeed, some believe it could open the door to scientific crowdsourcing as a future means of generating novel medicine ideas for other diseases. Frank von Delft, professor of protein science and structural biology at the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Medicine, described it as a new form of 'citizen science.'

"There's a vast resource of expertise and imagination that is simply dying to be tapped into," he said.

Others are slightly more skeptical, pointing out that the uniqueness of the current crisis has meant that many scientists were willing to contribute ideas without expecting any future compensation in return. This meant that it was easy to circumvent the traditional hurdles that prevent large-scale global collaborations from happening – namely how to decide who will profit from the final product and who will hold the intellectual property (IP) rights.

"I think it is too early to judge if this is a viable model for future drug discovery," says London. "I am not sure that without the existential threat we would have seen so many contributions, and so many people and institutions willing to waive compensation and future royalties. Many scientists found themselves at home, frustrated that they don't have a way to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and this project gave them an opportunity. Plus many can get behind the fact that this project has no associated IP and no one will get rich off of this effort. This breaks down a lot of the typical barriers and red-tape for wider collaboration."

"If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future."

However the Moonshot team believes that if they can succeed, it will at the very least send a strong statement to policy makers and the scientific community that greater efforts should be made to make such large-scale collaborations more feasible.

"All across the scientific world, we've seen unprecedented adoption of open-science, collaboration and collegiality during this crisis, perhaps recognizing that only a coordinated global effort could address this global challenge," says London. "If a drug would sprout from one of these crowdsourced ideas, it would serve as a very powerful argument to consider this mode of drug discovery further in the future."

[An earlier version of this article was published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]

David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.

A researcher works in the lab at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, which has pioneered the development of RNAi therapies.

(Photo credit: Alnylam Pharmaceuticals)


In October 2006, Craig Mello received a strange phone call from Sweden at 4:30 a.m. The voice at the other end of the line told him to get dressed and that his life was about to change.

"We think this could be effective in [the early] phase, helping the body clear the virus and preventing progression to that severe hyperimmune response which occurs in some patients."

Shortly afterwards, he was informed that along with his colleague Andrew Fire, he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Eight years earlier, biologists Fire and Mello had made a landmark discovery in the history of genetics. In a series of experiments conducted in worms, they had revealed an ancient evolutionary mechanism present in all animals that allows RNA – the structures within our cells that take genetic information from DNA and use it to make proteins – to selectively switch off genes.

At the time, scientists heralded the dawn of a new field of medical research utilizing this mechanism, known as RNA interference or RNAi, to tackle rare genetic diseases and deactivate viruses. Now, 14 years later, the pharmaceutical company Alnylam — which has pioneered the development of RNAi-based treatments over the past decade — is looking to use it to develop a groundbreaking drug for the virus that causes COVID-19.

"We can design small interfering RNAs to target regions of the viral genome and bind to them," said Akin Akinc, who manages several of Alnylam's drug development programs. "What we're learning about COVID-19 is that there's an early phase where there's lots of viral replication and a high viral load. We think this could be effective in that phase, helping the body clear the virus and preventing progression to that severe hyperimmune response which occurs in some patients."

Called ALN-COV, Alnylam's treatment hypothetically works by switching off a key gene in the virus, inhibiting its ability to replicate itself. In order to deliver it to the epithelial cells deep in the lung tissue, where the virus resides, patients will inhale a fine mist containing the RNAi molecules mixed in a saline solution, using a nebulizer.

But before human trials of the drug can begin, the company needs to convince regulators that it is both safe and effective in a series of preclinical trials. While early results appear promising - when mixed with the virus in a test tube, the drug displayed a 95 percent inhibition rate – experts are reserving judgment until it performs in clinical trials.

"If successful this could be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies, but virus infections are very complicated and it can be hard to predict whether a given level of inhibition in cell culture will be sufficient to have a significant impact on the course of the infection," said Si-Ping Han, who researches RNAi therapeutics at California Institute of Technology and is not involved in the development of this drug.

So far, Alnylam has had success in using RNAi to treat rare genetic diseases. It currently has treatments licensed for Hereditary ATTR Amyloidosis and Acute Hepatic Porphyria. Another treatment, for Primary Hyperoxaluria Type 1, is currently under regulatory review. But its only previous attempt to use RNAi to tackle a respiratory infection was a failed effort to develop a drug for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) almost a decade ago.

However, the technology has advanced considerably since then. "Back then, RNAi drugs had no chemical modifications whatsoever, so they were readily degraded by the body, and they could also result in unintended immune stimulation," said Akinc. "Since then, we've learned how to chemically modify our RNAi's to make them immunosilent and give them improved potency, stability, and duration of action."

"It would be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies."

But one key challenge the company will face is the sheer speed at which viruses evolve, meaning they can become drug-resistant very quickly. Scientists predict that Alnylam will ultimately have to develop a series of RNAi drugs for the coronavirus that work together.

"There's been considerable interest in using RNAi to treat viral infections, as RNA therapies can be developed more rapidly than protein therapies like monoclonal antibodies, since one only needs to know the viral genome sequence to begin to design them," said David Schaffer, professor of bioengineering at University of California, Berkeley. "But viruses can evolve their sequences rapidly around single drugs so it is likely that a combinatorial RNAi therapy may be needed."

In the meantime, Alnylam is conducting further preclinical trials over the summer and fall, with the aim of launching testing in human volunteers by the end of this year -- an ambitious aim that would represent a breakneck pace for a drug development program.

If the approach does ultimately succeed, it would represent a major breakthrough for the field as a whole, potentially opening the door to a whole new wave of RNAi treatments for different lung infections and diseases.

"It would be a very important milestone in the development of RNAi therapies," said Han, the Caltech researcher. "It would be both the first time that an RNAi drug has been successfully used to treat a respiratory infection and as far as I know, the first time that one has been successful in treating any disease in the lungs. RNAi is a platform that can be reconfigured to hit different targets, and so once the first drug has been developed, we can expect a rapid flow of variants targeting other respiratory infections or other lung diseases."

David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.