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Cancer Drug Technology Licensed for Covid-19

Paula Bates

Paula Bates (University of Louisville)

10 June 2020. A biotechnology company is licensing medical research discoveries from university labs first designed for treating cancer as a potential Covid-19 therapy. The agreement with Qualigen Therapeutics Inc. in Carlsbad, California gives University of Louisville in Kentucky royalties on sales of future products and research funding, but no dollar amounts were disclosed.

Research by Louisville cancer researcher Paula Bates and colleagues led to development of an aptamer, a single strand of nucleic acid — either DNA or RNA in nature, or synthesized — that binds to specific protein targets. In this case, the target is the protein nucleolin, found in the nucleus of cells, and involved in metabolism of DNA and some RNA functions, including transcription from DNA and synthesizing proteins.

Qualigen Therapeutics licensed the synthetic DNA aptamer, code-named AS1411, from the university in 2018 as a cancer therapy, now in clinical trials to treat acute myeloid leukemia, as well as kidney and pancreatic cancer. The company also licenses AS1411 combined with gold nanoscale particles as a treatment and radiation enhancement for several types of cancer, all in preclinical stages.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, however, Bates and Louisville infectious disease researcher Kenneth Palmer shifted their attention to AS1411’s potential as a treatment for Covid-19 infections. One advantage for the university in this type of research is a high-security biocontainment lab on campus that protects researchers and the public from accidental release of infectious agents.

In April, the university announced results of lab tests showing AS1411 blocks SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses responsible for Covid-19 infections from replicating in the body. The aptamer works by preventing the virus from accessing nucleolin in cells and using its machinery to spread infections to other cells. In addition, their studies identified safe dosage ranges in humans, where the aptamer is effective. Since Qualigen is testing AS1411 in clinical trials, data already point to the aptamer’s safety profile.

“This has been a true collaborative effort,” says Bates in a statement. “Everyone at UofL has rallied together to take on this big global challenge. I am fortunate to be at UofL, which is one of the few places in the country where we have the facilities to do this important work.”

Under the new agreement, Qualigen receives an exclusive license to develop AS1411 as a vaccine or therapy for Covid-19 infections. In return, the university is eligible for low-to-mid-single-digit percentages on sales of AS1411 in anti-Covid-19 Qualigen products. In addition, Qualigen is funding more preclinical lab and animal studies of AS1411 as a Covid-19 treatment, and the company plans to study AS1411’s potential as a broader-spectrum antiviral therapy.

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