UT researcher in Memphis working tirelessly on coronavirus drug

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 11, 2020 8:01 AM CT | Published: March 10, 2020 12:39 PM CT

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In several weeks, it’s possible Dr. Colleen Jonsson will have identified compounds that stop coronavirus.

The next step will be working with colleagues at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis to create antiviral drugs to head off the virus wreaking havoc around the globe.

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If the compounds are already approved by the FDA, “that will short-circuit a lot of the preclinical testing that we have to do,” said Jonsson, who holds the Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology at UTHSC. She’s also the director of the Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems and head of the regional biocontainment on campus.

The work is happening in the containment lab, a 10,000-square-foot space where Jonsson and her colleagues work in PAPRs, large, battery-operated masks that slip down over the shoulders and include a breathing tube, blower and particle filters.

The project is in partnership with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It is sending Jonsson names of compounds it has found that bind with the virus in simulations.

If they bind, they stop the virus from reproducing.

Dr. Jeremy Smith, director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics, a partnership between the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has identified 53 compounds that look promising. Jonsson has 75 others, based on her decades of experience.

“We’ll start with, say hundreds, and then we’ll move to thousands. And if we need to, we’ll move to tens of thousands,” she said. “And if we don’t find anything, we’ll just keep screening.”

Since early February, Smith has screened 8,000 compounds, or drugs that have been approved by various countries, herbal medicines, natural products and other compounds known to be safe, he said.

“We’ll expand the database,” he said. “There are millions of chemicals out there that could be tested.”

The calculations are done on the supercomputer called Summit at Oak Ridge National Lab, allowing Smith and his team in one day to do what would take months on smaller systems.

Jonsson then orders the compounds, joking Tuesday morning that they were in her online cart, if she could just get time to place the order.

The most visible part of her work happens in a clear plastic card that holds 384 tiny wells. In each well, Jonsson infects cells with the live coronavirus and then adds one of the compounds.

“We have ways to measure the amount of virus left in the well. So, basically, we look for protection of the cells from the virus by the drug. The more protected, the more color there is,” she said.

“It’s actually quite beautiful and quite dramatic. We’re really looking forward to running these experiments.”

By next week, she will know which compounds are most effective. And while both she and Smith are hopeful, no one is making any promises.

“I think our calculations rank them among the best, but there is still a very good chance that none of them will work,” Smith said.

“There has been a little overhype in the media. We may never get there. It could be that none of the chemicals work. It could be we have to design a new chemical from scratch. We don’t know yet,” he said.

Until about 10 days ago, Jonsson was focused on finding medicines to stop the eastern equine encephalitis virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, so far, mostly in states on the Eastern Seaboard.

A year ago, she and two other investigators received a $21 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to identify potential drugs to treat the condition. As of December 2019, it had infected 38 people; 19 had died.

“It has about a 40% lethality rate,” Jonsson said of the encephalitis virus.

“There are many, many families of viruses - probably more than 300 viruses that are known to cause disease in humans. And out of those, we only have five or so antiviral drugs. We’re not winning that war yet,” she said.

The process in her lab is the same for coronavirus and the eastern equine virus. Right now, she is doing both.

“I already work a lot of hours,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible to work more.”

Jonsson has worked 28 years with dangerous human viruses, including SARS, and holds five patents. Photos and awards around her office show the high points of her work, including flying in to help with epidemiology hot spots. One was Central America in 1998 following Hurricane Mitch.

“That was when I was younger,” she says, pointing out a younger version of herself in the photos.

Her father, Valgard Jonsson, was the longtime head of public health for the city of St. Louis, where she grew up.

“I’ve been in labs since I was 7,” Jonsson said. 

UT leaders asked her to test Smith’s calculations in the regional biocontainment lab, she said, noting that the work is being done through the generosity of UT.

The lab is one of 12 containment centers in the nation. UTHSC won a national competition, sponsored by NIH in 2010, for the honor of having it in Memphis.

“The laboratory brought a unique resource to this area,” she said.

All of the labs now are concentrating on coronavirus efforts, Jonsson said.

As a measure of how busy she is, she hasn’t had time to talk to the other directors about their assignments.


UTHSC uthsc.edu/coronavirus Dr. Colleen Jonsson
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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