Mobilizing against COVID-19: University virologist joins national strike force to fight the virus

Posted on Friday, March 20, 2020

Marceline Côté

Professor Marceline Côté

Marceline Côté has received a $415,000 grant to contribute to the national effort to find a treatment for the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

Along with five other University of Ottawa researchers, the professor from the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology of the Faculty of Medicine has been chosen to take part in the federal government’s rapid research intervention program to fight COVID-19. 

This $52.6 million program, put in place to respond to the COVID-19-related public health crisis, aims to support around fifty researchers across Canada whose work could provide concrete solutions to deal with this pandemic.

“I would like to thank our researchers who are mobilizing to provide rapid solutions to counter the coronavirus crisis,” said Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research. “University of Ottawa, through the work of experts like Marceline Côté and her team is playing a key role in the fight against the spread of this virus.”


Virologist known for her work on the Ebola virus

Côté, a specialist in emerging viruses such as Ebola or SARS, uses molecular virology, chemical biology and genetics to identify proteins present in the cells that play a major role in infection and are potential treatment targets.

“We’re seeking to understand how emerging virus types like Ebola, Lassa fever or corona enter cells,” says Côté. To develop new antiviral treatments, her laboratory is working to better understand how to target the mechanism that allow viruses to force their way through to cells and propagate.  


A drug repurposing antiviral strategy

Finding an antiviral treatment for COVID-19 is the urgent challenge that Côté, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Antiviral Therapeutics, will attempt to meet, in collaboration with two other research teams.

The virologist’s research strategy is based on the repurposing of treatments that have already been tested, approved and used for other diseases. Known as drug repurposing or repositioning, this approach involves modifying existing medication to test its effectiveness against the new virus. This strategy could be complemented by screening of genes associated with a virus’s penetration mechanisms. It allows for the laboratory clinical trial stage and the development of human treatment protocols to be reached faster.

“The advantage of our approach is that the potential antiviral molecules that we’re testing are already acknowledged to be safe,” says Côté. “This will accelerate their use in treating COVID-19 in patients.”


Interdisciplinary research approach

This research program was developed in collaboration with the laboratories of Professors Patrick Giguère, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Pharmacology and Drug Discovery at the University of Ottawa, and Darwyn Kobasa, a specialist in the pathogenesis of respiratory viruses at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Interdisciplinary in nature, this project led by Côté tackles a major challenge of our age, namely, the growing frequency of viral pandemics.  Bringing together the identification of viral cellular penetration points, repurposing of existing medication, genetic screening and testing on living beings, the research team’s strategy increases the probability of developing treatments to meet this public health emergency. 

In this crisis situation, Côté acknowledges that having to ensure her lab team’s research is carried out and coordinated safely while maintaining current social distancing requirements is a major challenge for her.

Five other researchers, including Marc-André Langlois and Ronald Labonté (Faculty of Medicine); Kumanan Wilson (Faculty of Medicine and Bruyère Research Institute); Maxim Berezovski (Faculty of Science); and Patrick Fafard (Faculty of Social Sciences), have also received Canadian government grants as part of this rapid response to COVID-19.

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