UBC research helps fuel potential COVID-19 treatment

Dr. Josef Penninger, director of UBC Life Sciences Institute.


A potential treatment for the COVID-19 virus based on the work of UBC Life Sciences Institute director Josef Penninger will be tested on 28 patients in Guangzhou, China.

The APN01 treatment, which has already been tested on humans, exploits the action of a protein that was found to be the critical receptor for the SARS virus that killed nearly 800 people in 2002 and 2003, he said.

SARS triggers a form of pneumonia that causes “severe and often lethal lung failure.” COVID-19 coronavirus appears to infect the lungs using the same mechanism.

“First, (the drug) APN01 keeps the virus from infecting cells, and second, it should prevent lung failure and multiple organ complications, the source of most of the mortality we are seeing with COVID-19,” said Penninger.

The protein ACE2 is known to regulate blood pressure, but Penninger and his colleagues Arthur Slutsky and Chengyu Jiang found that it also protected SARS-infected mice against acute lung failure.

It also protected animals from lung failure caused by other illnesses, according a pair of studies published in Nature and Nature Medicine in 2005.

“As a result of SARS revealing its secrets of how it damages the lung, it has also shown us how to develop new medicines to treat other diseases,” he said.

If the treatment proves effective at reducing viral load and fever in patients with severe COVID-19 infections, it is likely to be evaluated in a new, much larger, clinical trial.


“In essence, we have a rational targeted therapy we had been working on for years, (and) together, an international team, an amazing team in Europe, China, and Canada, will make a clinical trial happen within weeks,” said Penninger in an email.

The treatment was developed by Vienna-based APEIRON Biologics, co-founded by Penninger, who is also a Canada 150 Chair in Functional Genetics.

“The last weeks we worked like crazy to get this drug to China with all the logistics, ethics (and) the amazing effort of many people,” said Penninger. “Now, the drug landed in China (on Monday).”

The trial is being coordinated by Nanshan Zhong, chair of the National COVID-19 Commission, and Yimin Li, who led the fight against SARS in Guangdong, China, in 2003.

The one-week APN01 trial is one of about 90 drug trials underway in China, testing the efficacy of treatments developed for influenza, HIV, and MERS coronavirus, among others.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, mainly in China. Korea, Italy, and Iran are also battling substantial outbreaks, leading to major disruptions in airline traffic and massive upheaval in the world’s financial markets.

The mortality rate — around 2.2 per cent overall — varies dramatically with age. The death rate for people between 10 and 49 years of age is 0.2 to 0.4 per cent, but ranges up to nearly 15 per cent for patients aged 80 and above.

Seven people in B.C. have tested positive for COVID-19, according to provincial health officer Bonnie Henry. Three are fully recovered, while the rest are stable and self-isolating to avoid spreading the virus.

Health authorities remain in active containment mode, with an extensive testing regime in place.

“We are working very carefully to make sure we detect anyone who comes into British Columbia with this disease,” said Henry.

A letter of warning was sent home to parents of children in Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and Tri-City school districts noting that people who had contact with patient six “may have attended school in the region and are currently self-isolating.”

Henry defended the decision not to name the specific schools affected as necessary to protect the privacy of the people involved and ensure they are not made “a target.”

If people were harassed, Henry said it could discourage others from coming forward or self-isolating when they have symptoms.


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