Dr Martin Stoermer is one of the few people who knows just how hard and slow the process is to create drugs to treat a new coronavirus. He is also one of the many people with a compromised immune system who are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic.
The Brisbane medicinal chemist has undergone chemotherapy twice, as well as a bone-marrow transplant to treat leukaemia. He will likely be on immune modulating drugs for the rest of his life.
“I’ve been doing the social distancing thing for eight years,” Stoermer told BuzzFeed News. “Whenever there is a periodic measles outbreak I just buckle down and stay home as measles will kill me.”
Stoermer also has graft versus host disease after his transplant, which occurs when donor bone marrow attacks the recipient. He needs to visit his oncologist at hospital every four weeks to stock up on immunosuppressants and pain killers. Last appointment he got an extra month’s worth to avoid the hospital when the number of COVID-19 patients will have risen.
If he runs out of medicine? “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
When scientists in China sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus and made it available in early January, Stoermer sat on his couch and scanned code looking for the novel coronavirus’s proteases (enzymes that cut proteins). Antiviral drugs often treat patients by disrupting the proteases.
“I immediately jumped on and grabbed the genetic sequence and started working on it frantically full-time and then put a preprint out on the first protease and then a couple of weeks later on the other,” he said.
Other scientists were then able to use Stoermer’s model which he posted on Twitter.
“What I found was these two enzymes that I looked at are very similar to those previously found in severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) so you could predict with a high level of confidence what the new [coronavirus] proteins look like.”
Stoermer has experience researching the proteases and designing new candidate drugs for SARS in 2002 and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, although that research was cut short when his leukaemia relapsed.
“It’s the first time we’ve had an outbreak or disease like this in a generation,” he said. “It is the first one where all the new results are being discussed in real time on social media and our understanding has progressed very rapidly.”
When a structure of the new coronavirus’s protein molecule was then released by other scientists it was “almost exactly” like Stoermer’s which was “gratifying”, he said.
While scientists are quickly trying to develop a vaccine to prevent the new coronavirus, clinical trials in China and the United States are testing medicines to treat it. Some are antiviral drugs used for other viruses.
“Repurposing an old drug is a good trick because if it works all the safety stuff has been done before so it’s quicker [to get it to humans],” Stoermer said. “It takes me back to those days in the early 90s when we were all desperately looking for an AIDS cure.”
Much of his work, Stoermer said, is making small amounts of molecules that don’t do anything.
“Most medicinal chemists in their lifetime will never produce a drug,” he said. “They produce many candidates that will go into testing but making drugs is a hard thing to do.”
Stoermer, who is affiliated with but not in a paid position at the University of Queensland, said he’s had to explain to his friends and family that the new coronavirus is not “just like the flu”.
“This is much more serious than that and you have to think about looking after your elders and anyone else in the family who is immunocompromised.”