An optimistic message in an ocean of worries! It was that of Professor Daniel Cohen, a leading specialist in immunology and genetics, who created Pharnext in 2007. The start-up has become a recognized biopharmaceutical company which studies the molecules already present on the market and combines them to provide solutions, in particular to patients suffering from rare or incurable diseases. Very present in neurology, it has just embarked on the race for coronavirus treatments. And to identify a hundred molecules that could prove to be effective. Interview with this hyperactive scientist.
Why this interest suffered for virology?
Professor Daniel Cohen: I work a lot with China, and one of my researchers, in France, comes from the Wuhan region. Three weeks ago, he offered to use our technology to try to find drugs to reposition. This allowed us to identify a hundred candidates.
What exactly is your technology?
It consists of using artificial intelligence to search for active drugs on specific targets. In practice, we start from the disease, from the modifications it induces, and therefore from the different proteins that should be activated or, on the contrary, inhibited to have a positive effect. Next, we look to see if there are already drugs that act on these target proteins. In general, there is a list of a hundred candidates whose effects must be checked in cell tests or in animals. More than half of the candidates prove to be effective in these specific cellular tests of the disease. The last step is to combine them optimally.
Let’s go back to the coronavirus. Where are you ?
When a virus infects human cells, it diverts their functioning to its advantage, which allows it to proliferate in the human organism. Pharnext’s strategy consisted in evaluating which part of this cellular functioning is affected by coronaviruses (such as Sras and Mers). This has enabled us to identify a hundred drugs already approved for common diseases and which could potentially hinder the hijacking of cellular machinery by Covid-19. Among them are chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which were proposed by Professor Didier Raoult in Marseille, as well as azithromycin. We have also shown a potentially positive effect of statins, antidiabetics and antihypertensive drugs, which obviously remains to be proven.
And yet, doctors say that patients suffering from comorbidities, especially diabetes and hypertension, are more likely than others to have serious forms…
Be careful, they can have these serious forms because their disease is too advanced. In addition, not all anti-diabetic and antihypertensive agents have this potential effect. Finally, not all patients take their treatments correctly. Furthermore, in the current state of knowledge, there is no need to rush on statins. And even if I am more than very optimistic about the effects of chloroquine and azithromycin, 25% of the patients, apparently, do not respond. It is therefore necessary to enlarge the arsenal to optimize the chances of quickly overcoming the epidemic.
“War” also requires access to data. Hence your call …
Yes, and it’s not just about our team. It is imperative that researchers have access to big data made up of the computerized medical records of as many patients as possible to work effectively. If we can get information on the drugs already taken by the hundreds of thousands of infected people, we can very quickly, thanks to artificial intelligence, identify treatments that work (already). These “reverse clinical trials” can show, in one day, that people taking this or that treatment are better protected than others. With such data, we will save time and ultimately this war.