Elva Joya, a rising senior at McDaniel College, wore her white lab coat, gloves and goggles as she prepped to test a molecule she created. She was surrounded by other students in lab with counters full of beakers, tubes and other science equipment as they all worked to create a foundation for a COVID-19 drug.
Students have been working to find a solution to COVID-19 during the summer research program at the Westminster college. The overall goal is to find a starting point for a drug that can treat the virus. The research started last summer and this year’s eight-week program is wrapping up this week.
Two groups of undergraduate students are working on the research, but with separate approaches.
Peter Craig, an associate professor of chemistry, said the goal is to stop the virus from copying itself. To do this, they want to rip out the part of the protein, which can cause disruption in the coronavirus’ replication process.
Dana Ferraris, another associate chemistry professor, is taking a different approach, having students design molecules that knock out those proteins. If done successfully, it can lead to a pill that kills the virus.
Ferraris said the students are, of course, realistic and know that creating a drug can be a 10-year process and cost billions of dollars. However, it is possible their research could be the “cornerstone.” And pharmaceutical companies can use it as leads for further development.
“So we’ve been doing some of the high risk things that big pharma doesn’t want us to do,” he said.
Craig said they won’t be entering into production with this research but they will try to publish their findings.
Craig compared Ferraris’ approach to molding a key to fit a specific lock for the virus to stop working. Craig’s approach, he said, isn’t to deliberately make the right key, but to go through the backdoor by searching for compounds that can target the zinc fingers — a protein structure — and disrupting its function.
One of Craig’s students, Patrick Keane, a rising senior, was also part of the research last year. He said he made a slew of compounds and a few “showed promise.” This year, he said, he’s working to improve those compounds and will “hopefully prove to be even more effective.”
Keane added later the work he’s done “won’t die with COVID.” It could be used against other viruses as well.
“We think we finally have something,” Ferraris said about the research.
One of the program’s collaborators, a professor at the University of Kansas who Ferraris has worked with in the past, looked at the chemical compounds they made last summer for the COVID drug. The collaborator said they looked great, according to Ferraris, adding that it’s good enough to qualify for a grant they plan to apply for this fall.
Ferraris said his background is in drug discovery. Prior to the pandemic, he was already working on anti-viral research. When the pandemic began, Ferraris said he “begged and pleaded” with the department to allow him to conduct research on campus. He said there was no reason to “sit on the sideline” as a scientist when the virus was spreading. The college allowed it.
Students in the program had to take classes like organic chemistry I and II, but was open to students like Joya, who studied psychology and pre-med. Joya, a first-generation college student, said she was initially intimidated by being in the lab. But a conversation with Ferraris and accidently breaking a wash glass at the same time he broke a beaker helped her become more comfortable.
“He is one of the first professors to believe in me,” she said.
On Tuesday, Joya was creating a new molecule, her 29th this summer to be exact.
“She’s the first person on the planet to make that molecule,” Ferraris said.
She only had four or five that did not work, which Ferraris said was a great “batting average” and not normal.
He said later he has 630 molecules collected over time and 100 were made this summer.
Joya and Ferraris took the compound to the basement level of the building to test it out in the nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR.
The magnetic instrument, named Ethyl, analyzes the molecular structure of the compound by measuring the interaction of nuclear spins. Ferraris and Joya sat at the computer waiting for the results hoping it matched the structure of the molecule Joya drew on a notepad. They were happy with what they saw.
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“It’s always a good feeling when the NMR ...,” Joya said, “... confirms what you were thinking,” Ferraris finished.