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.”

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