One silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it's brought a whole lot of attention to anti-virus research. For example, the NIH recently awarded more than $60 million to fund research for the mosquito-carried Chikungunya virus (CHIKV).
At UCLA's Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, a group of dedicated researchers from the Ramaiah and Arumugaswami laboratories believes that arboviruses, viruses spread by mosquitos and other arthropods, will be the culprits behind the next pandemic. They aim to discover a magic bullet: preventive and therapeutic antiviral molecules that can combat a wide range of potential pandemic-causing agents.
Image from Majzoub et al., 2019 Viruses
Our immune cells have an innate ability to suss out pathogens using pattern-recognition receptors (PRRs) sensitive to pathogen-associated molecules (PAMPs). When a virus is detected, a series of molecules become activated to trigger a defensive cellular response. These receptors are also sensitive to a group of molecules known as innate immune agonists, which play a crucial role in determining the magnitude and type of immune response that will be mounted.
In a recent paper from Cell Reports Medicine, researchers identified some synthetic and natural innate immune agonists as broad-spectrum antiviral agents. Activating a cellular pathway called STING with a synthetic agonist offered enhanced protection against many viruses.
Excitingly, the STING agonist cAIMP has proven effective in both treating and preventing CHIKV virus infection. A single dose of cAIMP induced a robust antiviral response in the host mice, effectively mitigating the arthritis response to CHIKV virus. When researchers looked at the proteins produced by infected cells, they found the STING agonist fixed virus-related issues with cellular repair and metabolic pathways caused by the virus.
Co-first author Garcia describes the next research step "is to develop these broad-spectrum antivirals in combination with other existing antivirals and be made readily available in the event of future respiratory and arboviral disease outbreaks."