John TrantJohn Trant has been awarded a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to design a new drug to fight coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19.

UWindsor chemist researching drug to fight COVID-19

A UWindsor chemist already inventing consumer products to fight COVID-19 has been awarded another federal grant to design a new drug to combat the virus.

John Trant is receiving a further $50,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. He will use the money to run computer simulations to understand how certain proteins, amino acids, and enzymes could be used to prevent the virus from infecting human cells.

He will then go into the lab to synthesize molecules and send the most promising combinations to his collaborator at Laval University, Louis Flamand, for experimentation on the virus responsible for COVID-19.

“We need to be ready with tools to fight this virus the next time around,” Dr. Trant said. “Future waves of COVID-19 and similar viruses are almost definitely coming.”

COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is the third coronavirus in the past 15 years capable of reaching pandemic proportions. The first, SARS, appeared in 2004. MERS followed in 2012.

Other scientists around the globe are experimenting with existing drugs to see if any are effective on this virus. Trant likens joining that research to “jumping into an already crowded pool with lots of people and balls flying everywhere.”

His research, meanwhile, is into designing an entirely new drug. “We’re taking a different approach. We’re going to be in a big, empty pool where almost no one is playing.”

Trant makes his research sound simple. He will analyze the structure of the virus cell’s bumpy surface and look for ways to fill in the dents and pockets with molecules. Tampering with the virus’s outer membrane in this way will prevent it from binding with human cells and penetrating them to replicate itself.

The key, Trant explained, is studying the proteins that make up the virus and learning how they interact with the proteins in human cells.

“Disabling that interaction is like closing the door so the virus can’t enter our cells, or locking the virus in a cell so it can’t get out, or taking away its clothes so it can’t leave the cell.”

He has partnered with Canadian pharmaceutical company Devonian Health Group in the hope of finding a drug capable of disabling the virus.

Trant’s computational team in his larger research group includes six post-doctoral fellows and three graduate students. It’s one of the larger chemical modeling teams in Canada with ready access to high-performance computing using specialized software.

His lab experiments on the rat coronavirus. It’s not infectious to humans and is a good substitute for developing therapies that will work on the human version of the virus. For experiments on the human coronavirus, Trant collaborates with labs like the one at Laval.

Trant an earlier $50,000 grant from NSERC to explore the development of an anti-viral coating that can be applied during manufacture to frequently-touched surfaces such as key pads, elevator buttons, and the handles on gas pumps. He is also inventing a degreaser than can clean especially dirty hands without water, and coming up with a gel formulation of hand sanitizer in the face of a worldwide shortage of gelling agents.

His lab has already come up with the formulation of a liquid hand sanitizer being distributed throughout Windsor and Essex County and to front-line workers elsewhere in the province.

The grants Trant has received are the maximum available under a special $15 million fund NSERC established to respond quickly to COVID-19. To date, NSERC has awarded four grants to UWindsor researchers for COVID-related research.

—Sarah Sacheli