UH Researchers’ "Molecular Mask" Offers a New Hope in Fighting Infectious Diseases

By Luke Rucker - Communications Intern, UH Technology Bridge

A pair of University of Houston professors are working to prove that innovation and science are the most valuable allies in the battle against disease, and their latest development has resulted in a compound that may be a pivotal tool for a brighter, safer and healthier future.

In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, Gomika Udugamasooriya, professor of medicinal chemistry at UH, is collaborating with UH professor of pharmaceutics Bin Guo to present a substantial innovation that offers a real solution to fighting the virus that has taken its toll on the world.

Udugamasooriya has engineered a remarkable synthetic compound called a peptoid – similar to a "molecular mask" – designed to block infectious viruses, including the notorious SARS-CoV-2 strain responsible for COVID-19. Though the spread of COVID-19 has slowed, Udugamasooriya believes this compound could be a valuable asset in treating infections caused by other SARS-associated coronaviruses.

Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and its cousins, MERS and SARS, enter our cells by attaching themselves to a specific receptor called ACE2 on the surface of nasal cavity, lung and blood vessel cells.

“The virus attaches to this ACE2 receptor, which is sort of the ‘doorknob’ or the entryway of the cells and gets into them,” Udugamasooriya said. His peptoid ingeniously blocks this attachment, acting as an internal “mask” that obstructs the virus's ability to attach and infect our cells.

This development is part of diligent work to identify new peptoids to target various biomolecules crucial in treating various diseases. Udugamasooriya’s drug-led discovery technology, named as on-bead two-color (OBTC) cell screen, is an innovative, precise and target-specific method that identifies the most selective compounds from the beginning. Crucially, Udugamasooriya's peptoid does not interfere with the normal functioning of the ACE2 receptor, minimizing potential side effects. This is a significant step forward in finding safe and effective treatments against COVID-19 and other viruses.

“We screen several hundred thousand compounds and then find the best one, and that compound becomes a drug lead or drug candidate for that target and that disease,” he said.

Unlike vaccines that target the virus and become outdated as the virus continues to mutate, Udugamasooriya’s peptoid can be used against mutations as it binds to the human or the host side, which is unchanged. There are very little research developments in this host-based drug discovery arena in infectious diseases.

“Since I developed this OBTC technology back in 2008, we had been applying it mainly for cancer, but when COVID-19 came, we thought about applying it to block that virus entry into the cells,” Udugamasooriya said.

When Udugamasooriya published this original data, Grammy Award-nominated Aloe Blacc had COVID at that time and reached out to him, expressing great interest in his compound.

“We had a meeting the very next day,” Udugamasooriya said. “It turned the whole project into a very different area. He was very enthusiastic and started funding us, contributing well over half a million dollars into this project so far.”

Thus far, this research has resulted in 10 patents for Udugamasooriya, four of which have been applied for in collaboration with Guo. Both men have since been working on more exciting projects, with this compound and in other areas.

In terms of commercialization, both Udugamasooriya and Guo have been working on getting their discovery out to the public. Ironically, Udugamasooriya mentioned how the decline of COVID-19 stunted their progress in that regard.

“We've started a company that would have been hugely impacted and would have had a better time moving forward if the pandemic was continuing,” he said. “Anyway, we are happy that pandemic is over, but our peptoids can be applied in other SARS viruses and also in our new projects, and we are trying to develop pan viral applications.”

While still awaiting further developments in this groundbreaking research – Udugamasooriya notes the current agenda for 2024 involves fundraising and clinical trials – it's clear that this compound could be a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19 and other viruses.

To that end, Udugamasooriya encouraged future researchers to aim high in order to turn the tide in science’s favor.

“What (aspiring biotechnologists) need to do is something big, and big means groundbreaking,” he said. “But it's extremely important to think simple with the least complicated approach to solve it at the same time. Stay focused and don't give up. Research is always full of failures. We are doing something really new, so there are a lot of failures, but you must have persistence and focus.”