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Researchers at Rutgers University are working to find an oral COVID-19 treatment to supplement or replace the antiviral medication Paxlovid, which helps keep high-risk patients out of the hospital. Their study, set to be published in Science, demonstrates the potential of a viral papain-like protease inhibitor as an alternative medication that inhibits disease progression in animals, a crucial step before human trials. With COVID-19 being the nation’s third leading cause of death, the need for additional treatment options is significant and will only increase as the virus mutates in ways that may render current treatments ineffective.

The Rutgers team focused on developing a drug that targets the viral papain-like protease (PLpro), a protein that plays a crucial role in all known strains of COVID-19. By obtaining detailed information about the structure of PLpro from the Arnold Lab at Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, they were able to design and synthesize 85 drug candidates that could potentially interfere with this essential protein. The precise knowledge of PLpro’s structure allowed the team to create innovative drug designs that could effectively inhibit the virus and prevent its progression.

One of the most promising drug candidates from the study, named Jun12682, showed effectiveness in inhibiting various strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including those resistant to Paxlovid. Laboratory tests and subsequent trials on SARS-CoV-2-infected mice demonstrated that oral treatment with Jun12682 resulted in reduced viral lung loads and lesions, as well as improved survival rates. The drug appeared to be as effective in mice as Paxlovid was in initial animal tests, with the added advantage of not interfering with other prescription medications, which is a common issue with Paxlovid.

Rutgers has submitted patent applications for Jun12682 and the other 84 drug candidates, indicating their commitment to advancing this potential treatment option for COVID-19. They are actively seeking partners to help progress the drug candidate through further stages of testing and development. The experimental drug Jun12682 shows promise as a viable alternative to Paxlovid, offering potential benefits such as reduced interference with other medications commonly taken by high-risk individuals. As COVID-19 continues to pose a significant threat to public health, the need for innovative treatments like Jun12682 becomes increasingly urgent.

The findings from the Rutgers study highlight the importance of ongoing research efforts to develop effective treatments for COVID-19 that can address the evolving challenges posed by the virus. With the potential for mutations that may impact the effectiveness of current treatments, the development of alternative medications such as Jun12682 is crucial in ensuring that high-risk patients have access to safe and effective therapeutic options. Collaborative efforts between researchers, institutions, and industry partners will be essential in moving promising drug candidates like Jun12682 forward towards clinical use, offering hope for improved outcomes for individuals affected by COVID-19.

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