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As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, researchers around the world now recognise that the virus doesn’t just cause respiratory illness but can affect multiple tissues causing widespread and permanent damage in some people.

With only a few approved drugs available to treat COVID-19, there is an urgent need to identify additional approved drugs, especially those that are cost-effective and able to inhibit viral replication, reduce COVID-19 symptoms and prevent long-term effects.

The team, led by Dr S.S.Vasan at CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, will be developing a rapid screening system to assess drugs already approved for other diseases for their efficacy against COVID-19.

Developing a novel screening platform

Current screening platforms have limitations, are expensive, time-consuming and are not always fully representative of how humans respond to the virus.

An innovative project from CSIRO will develop a novel screening tool to rapidly screen existing drugs and advance those that can be used to treat COVID-19 to phase 2-3 clinical trials.

The scientists will use four types of clinically-relevant human tissues – lower respiratory tract, lung, neural and cardiac tissues – specifically selected based on how SARS-CoV-2 infects people.

They will derive some of these tissues from stem cells – special type of human cells that can be developed into different cell types.

The project will screen the three promising candidates that can then be advanced to human clinical trials.

The team will use novel systems biology (a biomedical approach to understand the bigger picture) and machine learning methods to differentiate between healthy and diseased states of key human tissues, which will enable additional ways to determine if a drug is able to reliably restore a diseased tissue to a healthier state.

The project aims to have evaluated three TGA- or FDA-approved drug candidates for suitability to progress to phase 2-3 human clinical trials, within the next year.

The project called the ‘sySTEMs initiative’, including collaborators from Barwon Health and the University of NSW, received $998,355.93 from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) matched by $736,000 from CSIRO.

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