The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is part of ongoing research at Essex to find existing drugs which can reduce the ability of the virus to enter cells, therefore blocking it from infecting the body.
COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, attacks various organs but is most destructive to the lungs. The scientists focused on one of the proteins the virus uses to enter lung cells - TMPRSS2. Reducing levels of this protein could be a treatment option for COVID-19.
Male sex hormones, or androgens, are known to increase the levels of TMPRSS2 in several tissues, most notably in the prostate.
Research, co-led by Dr Greg Brooke, from the School of Life Sciences at Essex, showed that treatment with the androgen-blocking drug enzalutamide – a well-tolerated drug widely used in advanced prostate cancer – reduced TMPRSS2 levels in lab cultures of human lung cells. Importantly, antiandrogens significantly reduced SARS-CoV-2 entry and infection in lung cells.
The researchers say their study adds to a growing body of evidence from groups around the world, supporting clinical trials to assess the efficacy of antiandrogens as a potential treatment option for COVID-19.
Dr Brooke and Professor Charlotte Bevan, co-lead on the study from Imperial, have research groups at Essex and Imperial focusing on developing new treatment options for cancer. However, they have turned their attention to COVID-19, using their expertise and skills developed in the cancer field, to aid the global fight against this virus.
Dr Brooke explained: "Men are more likely to become seriously unwell and die from COVID-19 compared to women. This suggests the male sex hormone androgen may play a role in SARS-CoV-2 severity.
“For many years I have been working on the role of androgens in cancer so was able to use this knowledge to investigate if antiandrogens, drugs used for the treatment of prostate cancer, reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“We demonstrated that these drugs reduce the ability of the virus to enter the lungs and, therefore, our data supports clinical trials to investigate if antiandrogens can reduce COVID-19 severity in people infected with the virus."
Professor Bevan added: “This study not only supports further clinical investigation of these prostate cancer drugs but suggests other drugs we can test that could be useful in the COVID-19 effort. As we have learnt from cancer, it is important to have a range of drugs available in the armoury. And drugs that are tried-and-tested and approved in other diseases have the advantage that they can be re-purposed in this way relatively quickly.”
The collaborative team involved in the study includes Dr Andrea Mohr, Dr Stathis Giotis, Dr Ralf Zwacka, Emine Cil and Ana-Maria Isac at Essex and Dr Damien Leach, Dr Laura Yates and Professor Wendy Barclay at Imperial.