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University of Wisconsin-Madison

Weiping Tang Receives NIH Grant for Coronavirus Research

3D Rendering of the COVID-19 virus

Here are 3 things to know about the Tang Lab’s work toward antiviral therapeutics

By Katie Gerhards

The virus behind the ongoing pandemic, COVID-19, is a novel coronavirus, meaning that we’d never seen it in human populations before 2019, and researchers around the world are still working to understand the scope of the virus’ impact.

But coronaviruses, as a category, have been identified since the 1960s. There are four common human coronaviruses, including the one behind the common cold. However, as new types emerge, they can cause severe, life-threatening symptoms. Before COVID-19 — caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS CoV-2) — there was the SARS CoV-1 first seen in 2002, and then a decade later, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) surfaced.

Weiping Tang
Weiping Tang, professor in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division.

While we continue to grapple with the current pandemic, scientists are also looking ahead to ward off the next. University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy Professor Weiping Tang, Janis Apinis Professor in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division, is one of the researchers looking toward the horizon and working on advances that will prepare us for potential future coronavirus outbreaks.

With new two-year funding from the National Institutes of Health, Tang is producing proof-of-concept data for antiviral therapeutics to address SARS CoV-2 and related coronaviruses. Specifically, Tang and his collaborator Professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka — a virologist with the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and Influenza Research Institute — are developing compounds that can induce the degradation of key proteins required for the replication of most types of coronavirus.

Tang answers three key questions about this grant work and what the implications of his research might be.

1. What is unique about your approach to developing coronavirus therapeutics?

“Vaccination is the best way to prevent infection. However, biologicals — including antibodies and vaccines — are very specific for one type of virus. Most current drug discovery approaches for multiple types of coronaviruses focus on the development of inhibitors, which prevent viral replication.

Our approach, however, is focused on the development of degraders of key proteins. Degraders can be used in lower doses, can act more quickly, and can be effective for strains that are resistant to inhibitors.”

2. Will this work help address the current COVID-19 pandemic, or future coronaviruses?

“Our work will unlikely address the current COVID-19 pandemic since the development of U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved small molecule drugs take years to decades. This will more likely address future coronavirus outbreaks since the viral protein we are targeting is conserved among most types of coronavirus.”

3. Given the focus and number of the ongoing projects in the Tang Lab, what motivated you to get involved in this research?

“We have developed a very efficient platform to develop degraders for various oncogenic protein targets. It is fairly straightforward to apply the platform to the development of degraders for viral protein targets. As soon as I learned about the pandemic early this year, I decided to make my contributions to the development of antiviral drugs, which is not the major focus of most big pharmaceutical companies.”