COVID-19 Drug Hunters Turn to WashU Lab to Test Possible Virus-Fighting Compounds Against Live Virus

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Scientists in St. Louis examine plates containing cells infected with COVID-19. They are screening chemical compounds for their ability to inactivate the SARS-Co-V-2 virus. It’s part of an effort to create or find drugs that can treat COVID-19 patients.

    Jennifer Philips, MD, PHD, Co-Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine, has the biosafety level 3 laboratory (BSL-3) to get the job done.

    “I have a lab that studies tuberculosis and tuberculosis is a respiratory pathogen so it’s transmitted person to person by cough and sneezing. It’s also a very lethal infection. It kills more people than any other infection around the world,” said Philips. “So when we work with it, we have to work with it in a biosafety level 3 facility. A biosafety level 3 facility is a lab that has special structural requirements, in terms of how the air is handled. “

    The lab operates under some of the highest levels of containment and safety measures to prevent sample spillover events and prevent scientists in the lab from getting infected. In addition to the high level of personal protective equipment, respirators are required.

    Having the BSL-3 for tuberculosis research, Philips was in a position to respond to the pandemic. She transitioned to the fight against COVID-19 by establishing a new screening platform that tests chemical compounds using the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

    “The virus that we use in a BSL-3 is SARS-CoV-2 that has come from patients, “ she said.

    The first step was training.

    “Training to make the virus and how to infect the (animal) cells,” Philips explained. “That’s something that we could learn relatively easily. Then we could screen small molecules that came from lots of other people’s ideas. They could be investigators at Washington University, they could be investigators outside of WashU.”

    Having the biosafety level 3 laboratory is critical for the work because they are working with the live virus. They are screening for small molecules that might impair the infection. To screen compounds, the researchers measure how many animal cells become infected when exposed to the virus, and whether adding the investigational compound reduces the number of infected cells. The researchers also assess safety by testing whether the compound itself injures animal cells.

    “It’s a service we can offer,” said Philips. “So people can ask for the compounds to be tested. And we prioritize the testing based upon whether there’s any plausibility that they might work and that they might actually be something that we could use in people.”

    Philips said they have tested hundreds of chemical compounds and only a couple of the compounds looked promising in that timeframe, as the majority of compounds did not work. She said the lab would continue to provide this service during the pandemic.