DMU scientist works with University of Oxford researchers in a bid to find COVID-19 cure

Dr Daniel Sillence

Drugs that are used to treat rare brain diseases could have the potential to treat COVID-19, according to early-stage research being conducted by a De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) scientist.

Dr Daniel Sillence, Associate Professor and Reader in Cell Biology at DMU, is working alongside the University of Oxford to investigate whether existing medicines could be repurposed to stop the virus.

“We are looking at whether drugs that have been created for rare neurodegenerative diseases, such as Niemann-Pick C, could also offer an avenue for treating COVID-19,” explained Dr Sillence.

“It is not unusual for viruses to require acidic pH to get into the cell. We believe these drugs could potentially stop COVID-19, as they can deacidify the cell’s vesicles in which the virus travels.”

This research follows the news that antimalaria drug Chloroquine – which was previously earmarked as a potential COVID-19 cure after initially showing promise in studies in China – had caused adverse effects in patient trials.

“Chloroquine is toxic and there are problems with its use in coronavirus patients. It interacts with other drugs that can be highly dangerous and cause harmful reactions,” continued Dr Sillence.

“The novel drugs we use to treat rare brain diseases, can work in a similar way to Chloroquine and are less toxic.”

Dr Sillence has sent different drugs, made by different manufacturers, to the University of Oxford for lab tests on cultured cells, rather than in patients.

“This is still very early-stage research, but these drugs are definitely real candidates and will be tested for anti-viral activity,” he added.

Dr Sillence, who previously taught at the University of Oxford before joining DMU in 2007, has conducted extensive research into the way in which fatty substances (known as glycolipids) behave in the body – something he believes could also be crucial in treating COVID-19.

“Viruses use glycolipids to get into cells in all sorts of ways,” he said. “They influence important processes in the body, so we need to look closely at whether COVID-19 is using glycolipids too, as they have been neglected in viral research in the past.”