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Repurposing Licensed Drugs for Use Against the Zika Virus

MAR 03, 2017 | SARAH ANWAR
Updated at March 2, 2017 at 4:42 PM EST

On Friday, February 24, 2017, at the First International Conference on Zika Virus, Robert W. Malone, MD, MS, discussed repurposing licensed drugs to serve as both therapy and prophylaxis for Zika. Contagion® sat down with Dr. Malone to discuss his research.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that drug production is not only a costly feat, but also a time-consuming one. On average, it takes approximately $1 billion and 10 years to get a new drug or vaccine on the market. With the Zika virus rapidly spreading across multiple countries,  bringing with it a wide array of devastating complications, there is no doubt that time is of the essence to bring a viable treatment option to market. Given the constraints of time and money, however, repurposing approved drugs that have already shown clinical significance against other pathogens has proven to be a practical alternative, particularly when not much funding is available for the disease in question.
Emerging infectious diseases, such as Zika, are areas of focus where “pharmaceutical companies can’t make much profit,” according to Dr. Malone. “The whole business model of how we develop medical countermeasures of emerging infectious diseases is broken,” he stressed. He referred to this phenomenon as, “outbreak fatigue,” and stated that “one of the only ways out of the woods that many people have started to think about and develop—both for oncology and infectious disease—is to recognize that we now have a rich pharmacopeia of compounds with different mechanisms of action.” 
To this end, Dr. Malone and his team took a four-step approach to identifying such compounds to repurpose. The four steps included: gathering background knowledge on pathogen, defining the target for licensure, carrying out investigational research, and finally, using high-throughput tools to test compound activity against the pathogen.
Dr. Malone’s approach differed from approaches past researchers have used to repurpose compounds against the Zika virus. Whereas past research jumped straight to high-throughput screening of all currently available compounds; Dr. Malone’s team first identified how the Zika virus infects primary skin cells and causes cellular autophagy, and then worked to identify licensed autophagy inhibitors that would be safe for use in pregnant women. These inhibitors were tested under a cooperative research agreement with the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

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