The spiky appearance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has become a familiar shape throughout the pandemic. It’s important to note that the spiky crown of the protein is the very feature for which coronavirus is named, as the word ‘corona’ is derived from the Latin word for crown.

The series of spike proteins helps coronaviruses stick to human cells and work their way inside. It may also prove the most effective target for fighting infection. As a result, spike proteins are the focus of much ongoing research in the fight against SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, as well as other coronaviruses.

Targeting SARS-CoV-2 Spike Proteins to Fight Infection

Antibodies that bind to SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins have demonstrated effectiveness in battling an infection, resulting in fewer hospitalizations for high-risk patients in clinical studies. These antibodies can essentially coat the spike, undermining the virus’ ability to bind with and breakthrough human cells. The antibodies inhibit further binding with healthy cells by binding themselves to the virus.

However, antibody therapy is costly, so the hunt for a more widely available treatment to battle COVID-19 using a similar mechanism is underway. Researchers have been searching for a method of inhibiting the spike protein’s ability to bind to human tissue. After running high-end protein stability assays there is hope that one of the drugs that have been identified offers promising results. 

Fenofibric Acid in the Treatment of SARS-CoV-2

Fenofibric acid (or fenofibrate) is typically prescribed to patients who need to reduce their cholesterol or fat levels. Fenofibrate accomplishes this by increasing the levels of a natural enzyme in the bloodstream that breaks down fats.

Research borne of a partnership between several universities has now found that fenofibric acid can also significantly reduce SARS-CoV-2’s ability to infect humans. In fact, the enzyme-boosting substance decreased COVID-19 infection of human cells by up to 70% in a lab setting. 

The study consisted of analysis of fenofibric acid along with several other existing drugs, specifically focusing on the ability of each to interrupt the mechanism by which the coronavirus uses its distinctive spike proteins to bind to and enter human cells. The tests were conducted against strains of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus isolated in 2020. Still, additional research, which was not published with the initial study, also showed potential in treating Alpha and Beta variants. Further testing to determine whether fenofibric acid may be effective against the Delta variant is ongoing.

Next Step: Clinical Trials

While further research is still needed, the importance of identifying new treatments for the virus is of the utmost importance.

“Vaccine programs will hopefully reduce infection rates and virus spread in the longer term [but] there is still an urgent need to expand our arsenal of drugs to treat SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr. Farhat Khanim, Biomedical Sciences Director at the University of Birmingham.

Steps to take this important research out of the lab and into the widespread therapeutic application are underway. Clinical trials are being planned and implemented to evaluate the use of fenofibric acid in COVID-19 patients. Currently, trials are being conducted in Israel and at the University of Pennsylvania. With the results of these trials, researchers hope to develop more affordable, widely accessible treatments to reduce the impact of COVID-19.


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