PhD students use research expertise to investigate COVID-19 treatments

Two Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD students, along with their supervisor Dr Andrew Munkacsi and fellow academics from Columbia University in New York City and Tottori University in Japan, have collaborated to identify which currently available drugs could be repurposed to help treat COVID-19.

PhD students Tamayanthi Rajakumar and Natalie Hammond.
PhD students Tamayanthi Rajakumar and Natalie Hammond

The students, Tamayanthi Rajakumar and Natalie Hammond, worked with their colleagues to write an extensive review of currently available drugs and assess whether these drugs might also treat COVID-19. The research was published in the Journal of Lipid Research.

Both students currently study defective molecular mechanisms of a process called lipid homeostasis, and how this can cause certain human diseases. These defects can underly many common diseases like cancer and diabetes, viral infections like Ebola, and rare diseases like the paediatric neurodegenerative Niemann-Pick type C disease that is the focus of their PhD research. There are lipid-regulating drugs available that can affect these diseases and infections, so the research team reviewed existing lipid-regulating drugs to see if they might also show promise in fighting COVID-19.

“With our theses investigating lipid homoeostasis, we felt we could contribute to understanding SARS-CoV-2 infection and possibly treating COVID-19,” Tamayanthi says.

“Given that the drugs we reviewed are already approved and prescribed for other purposes, combined with the urgent need for treatment to help stop the spread of COVID-19, we hoped that some of these drugs would help prevent or treat COVID-19,” Natalie says.

Since the publication of their paper, independent reports have been published supporting the team’s hypothesis that lipid homeostasis is something to monitor in COVID-19 patients.

The next step in this work is testing the drugs identified in this review. The research team have set up a collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in the USA, and are in the process of setting up a collaboration with the University of Otago to test if the drugs they have identified have an effect on the SARS-Cov-2 virus. If the tests are successful, the next step will be clinical trials.