SAN FRANCISCO — An international team led by UCSF scientists have discovered how a range of existing drugs may fight the coronavirus on a cellular level.

Without a human body, the virus can’t thrive, replicate or infect anyone else.

A pair of Bay Area scientists have added their brain power to a concerted international effort to figure out how the virus attacks the human body on a cellular level in order to determine what drugs might help fight back.

“We took a different tact, all right? We went with the biology first,” said UCSF Quantitative Biosciences Institute Director Dr. Nevan Krogan.

The global group of scientists led by UCSF formed a rapid response research team. They created the first-ever blueprint of how the virus hijacks and rewires human cells.

They then used that map to uncover drugs already in existence that may help to fight the virus fueling this pandemic.

“We generated the map first and then identified less than 100 different drugs and compounds,” said Dr. Krogan.

The blueprint shows more than 300 human proteins that the virus requires to get into human cells. They then looked at different drugs on the market or currently in development to see if any of them interact with these proteins. 

In lab experiments using monkey cells, the team found antihistamines, anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety drugs blocked the virus from getting into the cells.

The strongest antiviral effects were seen in two cancer drugs.

Both are used for multiple myeloma, the blood cancer affects a type of white blood cell that normally produces antibodies.

But a common ingredient in cough medicines called dextromethorphan actually stimulated the growth of the virus. While researchers are not advising people to stop using it, they are offering a word of caution.

“It would be wrong not to highlight it because, you know, it could be detrimental. And so more work needs to be done there,” said  Dr. Brian Shoichet of the UCSF School of Pharmacy.

They also found progesterone interferes with the virus. The sex hormone is produced in greater quantities  by women and may help explain why men are more likely to get severely ill and die.

“It certainly caught our eye too. It’s sort of an attractive hypothesis. It needs a lot more study,” said Dr. Shoichet.

Until a vaccine or herd immunity  eradicates the virus, it will cause more infections and death.

This team hopes their blueprint will help to lead to better treatments and give humans a better fighting chance.

One of the cancer drugs is actually now in a clinical trial in Spain, treating patients with COVID-19 researchers believe some of these compounds may end up in drug cocktails to hit the virus from many different angles.

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