30 Under 30: Virus Fighter
Alice Zhang’s “garbage chute” cellular research might soon help humans fight off viral infections of all kinds, including—well, you know.
Alice Zhang is working on a drug that could be effective against a host of viruses.
Some dispiriting news: For viruses that cause diseases like Ebola, SARS and Covid19, we have nothing at all that works like penicillin, a broadspectrum antibiotic that can combat dozens of bacterial strains—even ones we haven’t discovered yet. Finding something similar for viruses has been the Holy Grail of drug research for decades.
That could all change soon, though, thanks to the work of Alice Zhang, a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Science in 2017. Her company, San Francisco–based Verge Genomics, has spent years working on a treatment for ALS, the devastating neurological ailment also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. As it turns out, variations of her ALS drug might be effective against Covid-19—and other viruses as well.
“That’s important,” Zhang says, “because we really need drugs that we can stockpile to prevent the exact situation we’re in right now.”
Several varieties of Verge’s drug candidate “were quite highly effective” against the novel coronavirus in tests run by the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, according to Dr. Mark Namchuk, one of the group’s research leads.
The big caveat: What works in the lab doesn’t always work in the human body. Fewer than 10% of promising drug candidates make it to market, and the success rate for repurposing drugs is roughly the same.
Verge’s drug repairs a “garbage chute” within cells that recycle waste. With a disease like ALS, this process “goes haywire” in the nervous system, Zhang says. But viruses also use it to invade and infect cells. Targeting the “garbage chute” stops viruses from getting in, thereby halting infection.
Zhang’s next step is to partner with a larger pharmaceutical company to start clinical trials, which will likely begin in early 2021. If it pans out, she says, it could be “a frontline defense against future viral outbreaks.”