Touro Pharmacy Contributes in the Fight Against the Coronavirus

Analyzing DNA, Using Personalized Medicine to Identify Existing Drugs that Can Help Treat COVID-19

July 27, 2020
Brigitte Azzi

Brigitte Azzi, third-year student at Touro College of Pharmacy, describes a research project she and her mentor, Professor Zvi Loewy, are engaged in to help contribute to the treatment of COVID-19.

The world was shaken by the emergence of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) and its rapid spread and escalation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospital systems are overwhelmed and struggling to care for patients, and uncertainty lingers with a constant threat of spikes and new waves. In spite of this hardship, public and private industries have banded together to mitigate the impact, invest significant resources into trials and treatments, inform the public of risks and work together to find a light at the end of a very long tunnel.

As a third-year pharmacy student who has been focused on research and outreach through a variety of papers, posters and projects, I came across the Student Research Fellowship Grant program and reached out to my faculty mentor, Dr. Loewy. Together, we decided that we could use this opportunity to try and contribute in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis, effective medications are urgently needed to treat patients. Since research and development of new drugs can take years to complete, the health care community has looked to the use of existing medications that may have benefits against the SARS-Cov-2 virus. To support this mission, we chose to investigate the role of pharmacogenomics in the repurposing of these medications used in other diseases to treat patients with COVID-19.

Pharmacogenomics is the study of how a person’s DNA influences their response to medications. It is a relatively new field that merges the concepts of pharmacotherapy – the use of medicine to treat diseases – and genetics – the study of DNA and inherited traits. Certain differences in a person’s DNA can affect the way a medication works and is processed in their body. This can lead to an increased risk of side effects and adverse events or potentially decreased efficacy. Pharmacogenomics is used to tailor a person’s therapy to a specific drug and dose to achieve an optimal therapeutic effect and avoid possible toxicity. Pharmacogenomics is part of a broader field known as precision medicine, an approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment and lifestyle for each person.

The goal of this project is to identify potential populations in which the repurposing of existing drugs that are being investigated for use in COVID-19 may be done safely and successfully. Analyzing the DNA of specific population groups can identify which patients may benefit the most from repurposed drugs, those that may require extra monitoring and precautions and those that should avoid these medications altogether. In doing so, personalized medicine can be used to better determine the role of older drugs in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Successful pilot study results will lead to a greater impact on our collective knowledge of the application of pharmacogenomics in treating COVID-19. Personalized medicine can shine a light on potential risks of treatment and lead to safer, more effective outcomes at a time when they are needed most. This research is part of a larger effort by members of the medical, pharmaceutical and scientific communities to overcome this devastating virus and to help find the best path forward, so we may begin to heal.