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NUIG researchers discover deep sea coral with novel Covid drug potential

By Irish Pharmacist - 01st Sep 2022

NUI Galway

Researchers at NUI Galway (NUIG) have discovered a coral in the Atlantic Ocean that contains a potential wonder drug chemical compound that acts against the virus responsible for Covid-19. 

The cauliflower coral, so named due to its colour, shape and structure, was found on the seabed about half a mile below the surface on the edge of Ireland’s continental shelf. It contains a previously unknown chemical compound. 

Prof Louise Allcock, Professor of Zoology at NUIG, said: “While we did not set out to find this specific species, we were hunting for corals, especially soft corals, because of their potential in bio-discovery. 

“Nature never ceases to amaze — to think that a coral, which spends its life on the sea bed and is never exposed to viruses and diseases which affect humanity so profoundly, has the potential to influence treatments and therapies. Drug development is a lengthy process, but the first step is finding the magic compounds with bioreactivity in the laboratory.” 

Prof Allcock is Director of the Ryan Institute’s Centre for Ocean Research & Exploration (COREx) at NUIG. As part of a research project funded by Science Foundation Ireland, she deploys the ROV Holland I submarine from RV Celtic Explorer to hunt for deep-sea corals and sponges that may have novel chemical compounds with pharmaceutical potential. 

The research into the chemical make-up of the cauliflower coral is being conducted in partnership with South Florida University in the US. 

The compound isolated has been named ‘tuaimenal’. The word is a portmanteau — blending ‘tuaim’, alluding to ‘tuaimneacha’ as used in old Irish to describe the sounds of the sea, and ‘enal’, which is a chemistry term for a compound with an alkene aldehyde functional group. 

Tuaimenal A was discovered to block the major enzyme of the Covid-19 virus, known as Main Protease, which is responsible for the manufacture of virus particles inside the infected cell. 

Dr Carolina De Marco Verissimo of the Molecular Parasitology Laboratory at NUI Galway carried out a detailed study of the coral-derived Tuaimenal and how it interacts with the Covid-19 enzyme. 

She said: “Tuaimenal A represents what we term in science as a ‘lead compound’ — that is, a basic structure from which scientists can produce more potent and specific drugs that could be used for the treatment of Covid-19 and perhaps other viruses.” 

The complete work was recently published and can be accessed fully at: https://pubs.acs.org/ doi/10.1021/acs.jnatprod.2c00054. 

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