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A mission to disrupt COVID-19: Researchers at McDaniel College search for ways to fight virus

Max Gosselin, a student at McDaniel College, worked with professor Dana Ferraris on research into compounds that could disrupt the life cycle of the novel coronavirus.
Max Gosselin, a student at McDaniel College, worked with professor Dana Ferraris on research into compounds that could disrupt the life cycle of the novel coronavirus. (David Sinclair/David Sinclair)

McDaniel College’s summer research groups mostly went online this summer, but two small groups of researchers got special permission to work in the labs on campus. These students and professors spent their summer weeks working to contribute to the development of drugs designed to fight COVID-19.

Researchers all over the world are looking for “drugable targets,” meaning they look at the life cycle of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and try to find spots where a specific compound could disrupt it. And disrupting that cycle can mean lower viral load in the body.

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Chemistry professors Dana Ferraris and Peter Craig each led a handful of students in researching different targets during the McDaniel College Student-Faculty Collaborative Summer Research Program.

Priscilla Owusu, a student at McDaniel College, worked with professor Dana Ferraris on research into compounds that could disrupt the life cycle of the novel coronavirus.
Priscilla Owusu, a student at McDaniel College, worked with professor Dana Ferraris on research into compounds that could disrupt the life cycle of the novel coronavirus. (David Sinclair/David Sinclair)

Colin Tucker, a rising junior from Keymar, worked with Craig on disrupting a type of protein structure, nicknamed a zinc finger. The structure was going to be a subject of their summer research anyway — it plays a part in things ranging from healthy body functions to conditions like psoriasis. But when the COVID-19 emergency arose, they focused their research on battling the virus by searching for compounds that can target the zinc fingers in the novel coronavirus cells and mess up their function.

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“What we’ve been doing is trying to use molecules that weren’t originally designed to disrupt COVID-19 specifically, but they were designed to disrupt this type of structure,” Craig said.

Tucker and his peers have a rare opportunity to see their compounds tested rapidly. A process that can take months, if not a year, is being completed in a week or so, Tucker and Craig said. The research groups have the chance to analyze the results and start on a new and hopefully improved version.

“It was such an incredible thing to observe and see happen,” Tucker said.

The group, led by Ferraris, has used what the scientific community knows about similar viruses as their starting point to focus on drug development.

“We basically looked at the viral life cycle for the [novel] coronavirus,” Ferraris said. “And that viral life cycle includes various spots along the way that we as chemists can target. So if you knock out a certain protein that’s critical in that life cycle, you basically stop the virus from reproducing and knock down the viral load and cure the disease.”

Jayce Klingenberg, a student at McDaniel College, works in the lab researching how to disrupt the novel coronavirus during the college's Student-Faculty Collaborative Summer Research Program.
Jayce Klingenberg, a student at McDaniel College, works in the lab researching how to disrupt the novel coronavirus during the college's Student-Faculty Collaborative Summer Research Program. (David Sinclair/David Sinclair)

Their work is made easier by the worldwide push to make coronavirus-related developments available on an open-source, free basis. Ferraris described it as a “cornucopia.”

“We’re in a unique situation in that everybody wants the same thing. You know, pharmaceutical companies typically operate under the, ‘If we can’t make a profit, why the hell are we doing it?’ kind of modality,” he said.

After the summer research, he said, the group hopes to publish some of their compounds, giving the undergraduates a valuable publication. Pharmaceutical companies may then be able to take those compounds as leads and pursue further development.

During the campus closures at McDaniel and other schools, it was a tough time for students of chemistry and other disciplines that rely on lab work. The hands-on knowledge is hard to replicate at a distance.

The summer research program is a 10-week program for undergraduates. Fifteen faculty members total are leading projects, though only the coronavirus-related projects led by Ferraris and Craig are being held in person.

Both professors saw this summer as an opportunity to do something valuable and get some hands-on experience for a small group of students.

Rising senior Jayce Klingenberg of Hampstead said she was excited to be able to make a contribution.

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“I was so ecstatic to make a difference or just play a small role ... in helping out other people trying to make a change or actually do something during this whole pandemic.”

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