When COVID-19 first hit the headlines, Travis Dudding got curious.
The Brock University Professor of Chemistry’s instincts as a scholar and researcher kicked into high gear. He read as much as he could about the chemistry of COVID-19 and created files of possible chemical combinations that could be investigated to prevent or mitigate the virus.
“I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I can contribute; maybe I can help,” he recalls. “I know how to make small molecules, let me see what I can come up with.”
Dudding’s research and conversations with colleagues around the world pointed him in the direction of a flavonoid — a naturally-occurring chemical found in most fruits, vegetables, tea and wine — called quercetin.
Quercetin has been associated with several health benefits, including the reduction of risk for heart disease, cancer and degenerative brain disorders, among others.
Meanwhile, at the St. Catharines-based Biolyse Pharma Corporation, Director Claude Mercure and pharmaceutical consultant John Fulton were inspired by a February 2020 article they saw in Maclean’s about quercetin research being conducted by Michel Chrétien, researcher at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal (IRCM).
Chrétien and his team were looking at whether a certain component of quercetin could fight COVID-19 and other viruses.
Like Dudding, Fulton, Quercetin Project Partner at Biolyse, read voraciously and approached researchers around the globe investigating quercetin, forming research groups he created on WhatsApp.
He and his project partners at the company, excited about the possibility of creating a quercetin product, looked closer to home to make this happen.
“I’ve been following Dr. Dudding’s work for quite a while,” says Fulton. “He’s interesting, passionate about chemistry and he’s training the next generation of researchers.”
With a $50,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Brock and Biolyse Pharma Corporation have formed a research partnership that aims to create a quercetin product to be used in the fight against COVID-19.
Dudding’s research team includes PhD student Ivor Smajlagic and master’s students Rozhin Rowshanpour and Srini Vemulapalli.
When the body is exposed to COVID-19, the coronavirus binds itself to an enzyme called the ACE-2 receptor, which enables the virus to enter a cell. The virus then “hijacks” the cell by replacing its RNA with material that produces more viruses.
To bind to the ACE-2 receptor, the virus needs a protein called the S-protein.
“Quercetin is believed to disrupt the S-protein,” says Dudding. “Preventing the coronavirus from binding to the ACE-2 receptor is critical in preventing it from entering human cells and, therefore, preventing infection.”
The problem with quercetin is that it’s not very soluble in water. This means that very little of the quercetin would be made available to the body.
“What we’re hoping to do with this research is to be able to modify the quercetin to increase its water solubility and bioavailability so that it can be used as part of a protocol to treat COVID-19,” says Dudding.
Research from the Eastern Virginia Medical School and others have shown that quercetin is potentially more effective when combined with vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc and bromelain. For instance, bromelain, an extract from pineapples, is believed to help absorb quercetin.
“In Canada we really need to focus on being able to make small molecules for pharmaceutical drugs for Canadians made in Canada,” says Dudding.
Fulton and Dudding are also excited about investing in the next generation of researchers.
“I’ve always been of the philosophy that you’ve got to grow your own people,” says Fulton. “By being able to have this relationship with Brock, we’re investing in the future, in future employees, really.”