Duke researchers may have made a breakthrough in treating COVID-19 this week with a scientific study showing a new way to fight the virus. 

Amanda Hargrove, a chemistry professor at Duke University, is part of the cross-collegiate team researching RNA viruses. Their study, published Friday, identifies three chemical compounds that can block the COVID-19 virus’s ability to replicate itself and spread through the body. 

The team of researchers are hopeful the discovery will lead to a new “small-molecule” drug that can treat people infected with COVID-19. Although vaccines are widely available, “effective, easy-to-administer drugs to help people survive and recover once they’ve been infected remain limited,” a Duke news release stated. 

The coronavirus works by breaking into your body’s cells, delivering genetic information in the form of RNA, and then “hijack[ing] the body’s molecular machinery to build new copies of itself,” the news release stated. 

“The infected cell becomes a virus factory, reading the [RNA] and churning out the proteins the virus needs to replicate and spread.”

Existing medications for COVID-19—such as remdesivir and Paxlovid—fight the virus by binding proteins. A “small-molecule” antiviral, on the other hand, works by binding to RNA itself. The first such drug, to treat people with spinal muscular atrophy, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August. 

Hargrove and her colleagues—including Blanton Tolbert from Case Western Reserve University and Gary Brewer and Mei-Ling Li from Rutgers—have a patent pending on their method and plan to modify the chemical compounds to make them more powerful. The next step would then be to test them in mice “to see if this could be a viable drug candidate,” Hargrove said.

It may even be able to treat other coronaviruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“These are the first molecules with antiviral activity that target the virus’s RNA specifically, so it’s a totally new mechanism in that sense,” Hargrove said. “This is a new way to think about antivirals for RNA viruses.”

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.