In the past few days, the name of a compound used for decades in the treatment of malaria, chloroquine, has been on the front pages of newspapers and posts shared online.
In the origin of everything is a study published on March 18th in the scientific journal Cell Discovery, of the Nature group. This article describes experiments carried out on monkey cells cultured in vitro, in which researchers at the Institute of Virology of Wuhan observed that hydroxychloroquine, a less toxic form of chloroquine, reduces infection by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, possibly by preventing it from entering the cells and/or its genome reaching the cell nucleus and therefore being copied to generate new viruses.
It is known that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine increase the pH of intracellular vesicles such as lysosomes, which function as the digestive system of the cells, by degrading various types of molecules and recycling their components. With a very efficient degradative capacity, lysosomes are also used by the cell to eliminate bacteria and parasites and avoid infectious diseases. Therefore, lysosomes are essential components for our innate immunity.
Since hydroxychloroquine is already used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, a few days later clinical trials began on patients with COVID-19. Meanwhile, the controversy between Donald Trump and the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the USA - Anthony Fauci erupted in the news. After the US President stated that "There’s tremendous promise based on the results and other tests. There’s tremendous promise.", Fauci clarified that " It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.".
The first results of the clinical trials began to emerge, albeit from studies with few patients. Indeed, they show some effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine towards COVID-19, but the clinical trials have to be done with larger patient samples. It should also be emphasized that although this drug is apparently effective in the treatment of COVID-19, the mechanism(s) of action are not known in the case of this infection.
At CEDOC, several researchers study the functions of the lysosome, using chloroquine, among other compounds. The role of lysosomal dysfunction in several chronic diseases is also studied. The European LYSOCIL project is a collaborative project led by CEDOC-NMS, which focuses on the study of rare diseases that affect the lysosome. This cell compartment still has poorly understood functions, in addition to its role in the degradation of different molecules. The LYSOCIL project aims, to provide scientific training to CEDOC-NMS researchers, through collaborations with recognized institutes in this area, such as the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, in Italy.
It is therefore essential to continue with the research, so that one can understand how chloroquine and other drugs work and so that, in a time of global emergency like this, they can represent a hope in new therapies. In addition, there is an urgent need to discover new drugs and new therapeutic targets that increase the arsenal we have available against infections and chronic diseases.
At times like this, the importance of scientific knowledge and fundamental biomedical research becomes evident. Furthermore, it becomes clear that research should have a higher priority on the agenda of policy makers and that the funding dedicated to it should be boosted.