San Antonio — Researchers in the Alamo City believe have discovered a drug combination that they believe could work as a therapy against the Ebola virus, and have won a $3.4 million contract from an agency at the Department of Defense to test the combo in early clinical trials.
Success will partly depend on a new formulation of a drug called cepharanthine—a compound found in plants that the researchers say has been used to treat cardiovascular problems in China and Japan—that is being developed by the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in San Antonio. SWRI, along with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, plans to test it in combination with another drug, chloroquine, as a way to potentially treat Ebola.
The biomedical institute, known as Texas Biomed and also based in San Antonio, was seeking drug combinations that may effectively treat the virus, and came upon cepharanthine and chloroquine. It contracted SWRI to develop a new oral formulation of cepharanthine, which the organizations hope will be more easily absorbed, more stable, and more easily distributed than other forms of the drug, according to Joe McDonough, director of the pharmaceuticals and bioengineering department at SWRI.
Both cepharanthine and chloroquine, the latter of which has been used to treat malaria, have had success preventing the Ebola virus from propagating—but only at high doses, McDonough says.
SWRI and Texas Biomed are using the funding to study the new formulation in preclinical trials, as well as to examine the effect of using its formulation in combination with chloroquine on Ebola. If all goes well, the companies could seek regulatory approval for both the new drug formulation and for the combination use against Ebola, McDonough says.
“There will some strong intellectual property on cepharanthine,” McDonough said in a phone call. “Anything you combine it with is also covered.”
Moving beyond the preclinical stage could mean the companies would need millions more in funding, of course. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the DoD provided the $3.4 million, one-year contract and the companies can try to obtain two additional option years if the drugs show progress. The total award could be as high as $9 million, McDonough says.
The idea to combine the two drugs came from Robert Davey of Texas Biomed, who knew that the mixture of the drugs had found some success in treating malaria. While malaria has developed some resistance to chloroquine, the companies would not face a similar issue with Ebola because the drugs target a different mechanism to attack the latter disease, McDonough says.
“After reading that chloroquine combined with cepharanthine had a synergistic effect in treating malaria we put two and two together and wanted to test the idea that this combination could create a powerful Ebola virus inhibitor cocktail,” according to a prepared statement from Davey, who is chair of the department of virology and immunology at Texas Biomed. “Our collaboration with McDonough’s group at SWRI and funding from DTRA gives us the means to test the idea.”
Companies have been seeking an effective treatment for Ebola since outbreaks began in 2014. At the peak, hospitals began using experimental treatments, made by developers such as Chimerix (NASDAQ: CMRX) and Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, to treat the virus.
The companies expect to license the drug combination to the military and, potentially, drug companies, if clinical trials prove it is safe and effective.
SWRI is a contract researcher that works with both governments and the private sector. Its reach is broad, however, extending beyond pharmacology to applied physics, automation and data engineering, automotive and mechanical engineering, and space science, among other fields.
Founded in 1941 as the Foundation of Applied Research and most recently renamed Texas Biomed in 2011, the organization collaborates with other research groups on treatments for a variety of diseases and conditions, from cancer to parasitic infections.
Both organizations were founded by businessman Tom Slick, Jr., whose father discovered the Cushing oil field, though they say they are independent of each other.