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Interview: ‘As a virologist it is my duty to fight the coronavirus’

This is an interview with a PhD student of the Vector-borne diseases projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.

Interview with Melissa Thaler, PhD student of the Accelerating drug development against emerging vector-borne viruses project at Leiden University Medical Center.

Shortly after starting her PhD research, the coronavirus pandemic hit and Melissa Thaler switched to coronavirus research. She is now trying to find a drug against this novel virus.

“When I started my research just over a year ago, I focused on one specific kind of virus: those transferred by mosquitos. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, I switched to coronavirus research. I feel it is my responsibility as a researcher and I am happy to contribute to a solution.

Now I am testing the effect of existing drugs on the coronavirus and hope to find one that slows down or blocks its growth. For this, I use human lung cells in petri dishes, infected with the coronavirus. I add approved medicines to each dish and study the effect they have on the virus life cycle. A benefit of focusing on drugs that are already on the market is that they have been approved and are considered safe. Therefore, clinical trials move faster and the drug can be on the market in a relatively short period.

One medicine, the anti-malaria drug Suramin, was very promising: it slowed down the spread of the coronavirus in our lab. Now other researchers will have to test the efficiency of the drug in clinical studies. In the meantime, my colleagues and I keep searching for other compounds that block the virus. This may still take a while and I do not know whether I will ever return to my original research. But I would not mind continuing to study coronaviruses.”

PhD project: Accelerating drug development against emerging vector-borne viruses.