Anthony Leung (Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)

Anthony Leung knew exactly what he was looking for in January when he scanned the newly released genome for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Leung’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health specializes in a protein modifier called ADP-ribose, a molecule whose improper addition to or removal from proteins has been linked to cancer, neurodegeneration and viral diseases like that caused by coronavirus.

Leung and his colleagues, including Diane E. Griffin, have published multiple papers about ADP-ribosylation in relation to alphavirus. Different viruses tend to do similar things with similar molecules, so he was not surprised to see that SARS-CoV-2, like alphavirus, encodes a protein with the ability to remove ADP-ribose. Other researchers have demonstrated that removal of ADP is critical for the efficient replication of all coronaviruses.

“We find the virus’ ability to remove this chemical modification is linked to its ability to multiply itself,” he says. “If we have a way to stop this mechanism, then the virus cannot make more. That could be the basis of an anti-viral drug.”

Leung has developed a platform technology that can screen thousands of compounds to develop a therapeutic inhibitor to stop ADP-ribosylation removal in viruses. He is working with Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures to find industry collaborators to find the right compound to inhibit coronavirus infection.

“I keep on talking about the science. JHTV is interested in the deal,” he says with a laugh. “They focus the discussions so we can strike a partnership.”

Leung acknowledges that developing a drug treatment for COVID-19 through his platform would be a few years away, after the pandemic ends. But, he notes, a pathogenic coronavirus has been appearing in humans every seven to 10 years — SARS, in 2002; MERS, in 2009; COVID-19, last year — and his technology could be used when the next viral pandemic strikes.

“This kind of coronavirus is circulating in an animal and can easily jump to a human and cause a huge problem,” he says. “So, no matter what, we want to develop a drug that can be used to treat any future outbreak of coronavirus.”

Several of Leung’s ADP-ribosylation-related technologies are available for licensing through JHTV.