K-State virologists receive licensing for technology to research potential coronavirus and norovirus compounds

Kyeong-Ok Chang and Yunjeong Kim, both associate professors of veterinary medicine. (Photo courtesy of K-State Photo Services)

An agreement between Kansas State and Cocrystal Pharma Inc., has given two virologists and associate professors of veterinary medicine at K-State licensing for technology to research the potential production of an antiviral drug to treat coronaviruses and noroviruses. Cocrystal Pharma Inc. is a clinical stage biotechnology company that generates and identifies novel antiviral compounds.

With the help and support from the federal level, Kyeong-ok Chang said he and Yunjeong Kim, both associate professors of veterinary medicine, are able to keep pursuing their research.

“Fortunately with the federal funding, we are able to continue to develop the compound against not only the MERS coronavirus, but maybe the new COVID-19 coronavirus too,” Chang said.

According to Kim and Chang, there are currently no antiviral drugs that can cure human coronaviruses and noroviruses. This includes COVID-19, SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory System — and MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

“We don’t have anything for coronavirus infection so far, so that’s the whole goal of us developing protease inhibitors for coronavirus infection, specifically against MERS,” Kim said.

Kim and Chang have been conducting ongoing research for several years now. They have worked with several collaborators in different institutions including William Groutas, a medicinal chemist from Wichita State University, in hopes of advancing antiviral drug development for coronaviruses and noroviruses.

“At the time, our major focus was norovirus antivirus, focused on protease inhibitors,” Chang said. “Then, of course, we can extend similar approaches against norovirus to coronavirus. So that’s how our history begins.”

According to Kim, many of the viruses have similar proteases — types of enzymes that break down proteins to a smaller size — such as amino acids or peptides.

“What’s interesting is that some of the viruses have very similar virus proteases,” Kim said. “Once we have some compounds that are working against coronavirus or human norovirus, there’s a chance they may be effective against the other viruses that have similar virus proteases.”

Although Kim and Chang’s primary research focus has been on human viruses, they have also made some advancements in animal viruses.

“We have accumulated a lot of data working on the antiviral drugs for norovirus and coronaviruses and then we as a team identified a very good potential compound that seems to be working very well for cats,” Kim said. “Through five to six years of efforts, we were able to get into the clinical trial using one of our protease inhibitors and then showed the results that were very promising in terms of curing the cats.”

Even though this progress is a step in the right direction of creating an antiviral drug to fight coronaviruses and noroviruses, Kim said there are many steps that need to be taken to achieve it.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Kim said. “Sometimes people think licensing out means we have a clinical trial tomorrow or next year, but that’s not the reality.”