Coronavirus California: UCSF researchers race to find treatment for COVID-19

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Never have the stakes been higher. Researchers in labs at UCSF's Mission Bay campus have been working around the clock to identify which human cells COVID-19 invades and hijacks in order to survive and to spread.

It's estimated there are 30 trillion cells in a human body. The focus is to pinpoint human proteins that succumb to COVID-19. By mapping that, researchers will try to identify existing drugs that have the potential to interrupt that process.

"We as of last week sent out a number of drugs, I think 10 drugs so far, and they're testing them in the lab as we speak," UCSF Molecular Biologist Nevan Krogan said.

Nevan Krogan is director of the Qualitative Biosciences Institute. While his lab doesn't have samples of the coronavirus, his results are being shared with labs in New York and Paris that do.

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Some of the existing drugs being tested are FDA approved to treat Ebola and malaria, but could be effective on COVID-19. It's known as off-label use.

With infections rising globally, the need to identify effective treatment has disrupted the way scientists work, traditionally operating separately in silos.

Kevan Shokat is the chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at UCSF.

"This crisis in my opinion has brought out the best of many different scientists that have ignored the credit. They've all come together in a way I've never seen before," Shokat said.

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Collaboration will prevent duplicating efforts while accelerating the discovery of effective treatments. The technology at UCSF was developed several years ago and has been used on HIV, Ebola and West Nile virus.

The race by this team to help COVID-19 patients is narrowly focused.

"Everybody else is looking at a list of 20,000 proteins. We can look at a list of 200 so to pick the 200 out of 20,000 and to focus on those for these last two weeks and for the coming months," Shokat said.

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