Chemistry's Robert Batey receives support from Toronto COVID-19 Action Fund

April 28, 2020 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

In response to the threat posed by the current pandemic, the University of Toronto set up the $8.4-million Toronto COVID-19 Action Fund to support high impact projects by researchers from U of T and its hospital partners.

After a fast-tracked 30-day peer-review process, 31 projects – including two led by Faculty of Arts & Science researchers — were chosen from across the University based on their potential to have an impact within a year.

“COVID-19 presents an array of unprecedented global problems that require urgent attention and expertise from experts in a wide variety of disciplines — from medical specialists and public health researchers to economists, social scientists and mathematicians,” says Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.

“We are confident these projects will each, in their own way, make important contributions to the global fight against this pandemic.” 

One funded project involves a team of organic and biological chemistry researchers, led by Robert Batey, chair of the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Batey spoke with Arts & Science about this project.

Can you explain the role chemistry has to play in combating diseases like COVID-19?

Chemists are a key part of the drug discovery process. We try to understand, at the molecular level, how drugs function and interact with their biological targets. We plan how molecules can be efficiently made in the laboratory from readily available chemicals. This is known as synthetic chemistry. At this point, in the process of medicinal chemistry, we then help design and optimize the structures of the molecules. Essentially, we help choose what molecules to make, study how they work, and design and execute a process for making them.

There are many examples of small molecule antiviral drugs, but these tend to be targeted toward specific infections. For example, Tamiflu is used as a treatment for influenza but it doesn’t appear to have an effect against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the short-term, global efforts will be mainly limited to looking at the feasibility of repurposing existing drugs or known compounds, but in the longer term we must develop targeted coronavirus drugs.

Can you describe your project?

The proposal that has been funded is for a team of organic and biological chemists from the department. Collectively, we aim to support ongoing COVID-19 research efforts and target new opportunities for therapeutic intervention.

Working with biologists and clinician scientists, our synthetic and medicinal chemistry expertise in the development of small molecules — as biologically active molecules and eventually drugs — will aid fundamental studies on the virus and efforts toward therapeutic discovery. 

Why is the Toronto COVID-19 Action Fund important?

U of T researchers can play key roles in many aspects of the study of COVID-19 and potential future pandemics. The response of faculty researchers and their students, postdoctoral fellows and staff will be considerably aided by the fund. The funding provides an immediate kickstart to research and will also allow U of T and affiliated hospital researchers to compete for provincial, federal and other funding to tackle the crisis.