TÜBİTAK-backed ‘COVID-19 Turkey Platform’ hosts around 250 scientists from 25 universities, 8 public research agencies and 8 companies conducting vaccine and drug development studies.
Like healthcare professionals, the scientists in the laboratories also keep working day and night.
The studies that concern whole Turkey closely continue in different cities, in different laboratories simultaneously. The headquarter of the process is TÜBİTAK Marmara Research Center (MAM) in Gebze.
Prof. İbrahim KILIÇASLAN, the President of MAM, stated that, before Coronavirus hit Turkey, the Ministry of Industry and Technology tried to take measures in consultation with concerned bodies including mainly academics, universities and technology companies; and he added:
“Before the virus arrived in Turkey, a platform was formed. This platform hosts significant studies on Coronavirus with around 250 persons from 25 universities as well as public and private institutions in Turkey. As TÜBİTAK MAM, we realize the coordination of 17 grand projects conducted. In this context, we both conduct drug development projects against COVID-19 and realize the procurements of materials needed by platform members from domestic and foreign sources. In this sense, we have lifted bureaucracy completely upon the order of our Minister and we act with agility. In case of hard-to-find products, our Ministry immediately steps-in and procures the products rapidly.
Studies on live virus
Scientists are struggling to find the vaccine and drug against the virus at the risk of their lives. As a matter of fact, the first step towards a vaccine is laboratory experiments on live virus.
The virus samples collected from patients are examined in our “Bio-safety Level-3 Laboratory” which is a rare laboratory in Turkey with special protection against pathogens. In this special laboratory whose pressure values and atmosphere are constantly kept under control, the scientists working with special protective suits cannot get out until their experiments are finalized.
These experiments are both risky and of great importance, since they will constitute the base of a possible vaccine or drug. So as to target a structural part of the virus, first of all, we need to identify the virus properly. Since Covid-19 is also mutable in time, each new sample collected is subjected to experiments with no pause. Prof. Şaban TEKİN, the Director of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Institute which is in charge of the coordination of the all studies conducted, explains the process:
“In our projects on COVID, our work starts either with the virus or with samples bearing the virus. It may be a nasal/pharyngeal swab, a sputum or a bronchial fluid sample. Since it is a very dangerous and airborne virus, it needs to be experimented in such an advanced-safety laboratory. When we get the virus samples, we put them in the lab and our researchers start working on them. For instance, our researchers are now making RNA isolation from samples. These are the RNA samples of recovered or still patient people. Our purpose here is to reveal the antibody libraries developed by these patients and to develop a biological drug to stop the virus. This is our main goal.”
Prof. TEKİN stated they are working on antibodies that could eliminate the effects of the virus, and added:
“Here, we develop antibodies to neutralize the virus. We also develop a therapeutic drug molecule to prevent the infection of cells by the virus. Because we have developed similar biological drugs in the past, this is a long and well-known technology to us. Now we are doing the same thing on COVID.”
Candidate molecules are tested with SPR
Among the most important stages of developing a drug to eliminate the effects of the virus are the determination of structural proteins of the virus, the conduct of binding experiments with candidate drugs and the demonstration of findings in animal experiments. Also, we need to determine both the viral and cellular proteins that bind the virus to human cells. During the development of the targeted drug, as the most important data source, we use the plasma of patients recovered from the virus and identify the antibodies developed against the virus. After rigorous researches, simulants of these natural protective molecules are produced and tested to reveal whether they neutralize the virus, or not.
Especially in drug studies, in order to develop drugs with correct target molecules, the most important stage is the binding tests of existing or newly developed candidate drugs through modelling and SPR instrument. Senior Researcher Dr. Hasan Ümit ÖZTÜRK summarizes the process:
“We have a virus in hand and its proteins. There is an ACE receptor that the virus targets and uses to enter the body. Here, we develop and test some drugs against the spike and some other proteins in the virus, and demonstrate the efficacies with computerized studies. Of course, we do not only conduct computerized studies, but also subject them to various tests in laboratory and prove whether they demonstrate the same interaction, or not, so that we can proceed to the next stage. We have several tools for this purpose. The most important one is surface plasmon resonance analysis which is called SPR. With this analysis, we can demonstrate real-time interactions and proceed with the most efficient candidate molecules to the next viral neutralization phase.”
What about the current status of studies?
Candidate vaccine molecules need to undergo numerous tests. Just as the virus makes different effects on different bodies, the vaccines or drugs may not produce positive effects if they do not undergo correct tests to give correct results. Any mistake might lead to fatal results rather than positive effects. Therefore, we have a long and challenging process. About the current status of the studies, Prof. Şaban TEKİN explains:
“We have 17 projects conducted in our platform. 8 of them are vaccine development projects. All of these projects made a certain progress. Some are at the starting point, that is, vaccine products are being developed based on various technologies. At this stage, we provide support to some vaccine projects. We send the platform members the molecules they need. In a short while, we will start cellular tests using the real virus. Then, we will switch to the next stage where the efficacies of the vaccines and drugs will be tested on animals by using the real virus. The most critical phase in vaccine development is the examination of the effects of the molecule on animals. We have not reached that stage, yet; however, we will reach there in some projects, soon. Now, we are waiting for the formation of products. We have significant and promising projects and the all 8 vaccine projects employ different methodologies and technologies. They experiment various vaccine types like viral vaccine, inactive virus vaccine, RNA vaccine and DNA vaccine. Their product output periods are different from each other; some may yield in 3-5 months, some in 9-12 months. The goal of our platform is to make a certain progress in vaccine molecules until the end of this year, and at least, to finish the animal testings. Drug development has some other aspects. It is also subject to a certain process, and the whole projects in the platform currently keep working on the production of a drug molecule. They are trying to develop antibody-like structures to prevent the binding of the virus to cell. We have already scanned some antibody libraries, and now we are scanning human and mouse antibody libraries. We go over these stages uninterruptedly. They are examined repeatedly in order to catch a better antibody. Vaccine and drug development is not an easy job at all, and a team of 250 persons from 17 projects are struggling and working uninterruptedly under our coordination.