SRU researchers find ways to design antiviral drugs

Professor supervising a student

From left, Qi Chen, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of chemistry, and Alexander Smith, a junior chemistry major from Abbottstown, use a roto vaporizer at SRU as part of their research project to discover compounds for antiviral drugs.

May 30, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Putting the brakes on cold or flu symptoms is a daily occurrence at hospitals across the country. But stopping outbreaks of larger scale issues, like the Ebola virus, takes place years earlier in research laboratories around the world. And while there's no antiviral drug to treat Ebola, a Slippery Rock University professor and her student research assistant are making preliminary attempts this summer to crack the code by creating compounds that could be used in antiviral drugs.

Qi Chen, assistant professor of chemistry, lived in Shanghai, China, at the height of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, so she recognized first-hand how important it is to discover antiviral drugs.

"Someone has to do the work before an outbreak happens," said Chen, who arrived at SRU in 2016 and has since published six papers on antiviral drug design. "I'm not a health care professional - I'm just a chemist - but there's something I can do about it. I like to learn something, of course, from the science perspective, but I also want to make something that can be put into use."

Chen and one of the top students from her Organic Chemistry class, Alexander Smith, a junior chemistry major from Abbottstown, will spend the summer in an SRU lab, creating and identifying compounds that could inhibit viral enzymes and have antiviral effects. Their research work is titled "Design, Synthesis and Drug Mechanism Study of Antiviral Agents."

Previously, Chen discovered that a type of compound, called D-carbocyclic nucleosides, has anti-Ebola activities. However, while targeting a viral enzyme, she designed a compound that was a mirror image of L-carbocyclic nucleosides, and, in theory, should not have resulted in a reaction. Chen compares the reaction to a lock and key but with the lock, or the enzyme, functioning as a glove.

"If you have a right-hand glove, your left hand cannot fit into it," Chen said. "The enzyme is like a right-hand glove but our compound is a left hand, so, in theory, it shouldn't be active; that's why it's not brought too much attention in the scientific field. But for our compound, it turns out quite active. It is very interesting."

"(The compound) inhibits the Ebola virus but the question is, where is the lock? This has brought up a completely new field for me to discover. We need to make the compound better and better to see how potent it can go to inhibit the anti-Ebola activity."

The SRU researchers will attempt to find which enzyme, or drug-action mechanism, the compound is targeting.

"We are constructing molecules that have never been constructed before," said Chen, noting the time-consuming tasks of sometimes building the molecules one atom at a time and testing the structures so they match the models and projections. "We need to manipulate the structure to find the right lock."

That's where Smith comes in. He will create the compounds and characterize their structure through processes that include hydrogen nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which is testing for hydrogen peaks through electromagnetic radiation.

"This research will give me more understanding in how antiviral drugs are formed," said Smith, who wants to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals. "I'm not going to necessarily be doing this as a pharmacist but I'm going to have that knowledge of how this is done, so when someone asks me, 'Do you know the process,' I can say, 'Yes, I've done the research on it.' It'll give me that extra edge."

Smith will be paid to conduct the research thanks to SRU's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience grant. The results of the research could potentially be published in a peer-reviewed journal or presented at a conference next year.

"I'm impressed by SRU's research environment," Chen said. "The whole department is very supportive of the high-impact teaching and research with undergraduates. Without this support, I couldn't do this much research."

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |