To trigger illness, viruses must penetrate the cells of the human body. Therefore, they attach themselves to suitable cells and insert their genetic information into these cells. Scientists from the German Primate Center – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Göttingen, together with colleagues at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, investigated how the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 penetrates cells. They have identified a cellular enzyme that is essential for the virus to enter lung cells: the protease TMPRSS2. An existing drug that inhibits this protease could, therefore, be a promising treatment option.
Several strains of coronaviruses circulate all over the world, which constantly infect humans and usually only causes mild respiratory problem. However, we are currently experiencing a worldwide spread of a new coronavirus with more than 110,000 confirmed cases of illness and over 3,900 deaths. It is SARS coronavirus-2, which has been transmitted from animals to humans and can cause serious respiratory problems called Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The SARS coronavirus-2 has been spreading since December 2019 and is closely related to the SARS coronavirus that triggered the SARS pandemic in 2002/2003. Neither vaccines nor drugs are currently available to combat both viruses.
Stop virus replication
A team of scientists led by the infection biologists at the German Primate Center, which includes researchers from the Charité, the Hanover Veterinary University Foundation, the BG Accident Clinic Murnau, the LMU Munich, the Robert Koch Institute and the German Center for infection research wanted to find out how the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells and how this process can be blocked. The researchers identified a cellular protein that is important for the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into the cells. “Our results show that SARS-CoV-2 needs the protein protease transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2) present in the human body to penetrate the host cell,” says Stefan Pöhlmann, head of the infection biology department at the German Primate Center.
As the drug Camostat Mesilate is known to inhibit the protease TMPRSS2, the researchers investigated whether it can also prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2. “We tested SARS-CoV-2 from a patient and found that Camostat Mesilate blocks the virus from entering lung cells,” says Markus Hoffmann, the study’s lead author. Camostat Mesilate is a drug approved in Japan that is used for inflammation of the pancreas. “Our results suggest that Camostat could also protect Mesilate from COVID-19,” says Markus Hoffmann. “This should be investigated in clinical trials.”