Anti-viral drugs incorporating protease inhibitors were always likely to be a key piece of weaponry in the arsenal against Covid-19. The medication has its origins in research performed almost 150 years ago, sharply illustrating why we should respect the continuum of science.
Enzymes are proteins that act as biological catalysts. Enzymology is a branch of biochemistry involving the study of the properties, activity and significance of enzymes and has a long and interesting history dating back to 1833 and the discovery of diastase, a digestive enzyme. But the term “enzyme” was actually not coined until 1877, by eminent researcher in the subject Wilhelm Kühne. It was around this time that the field really began to expand with a series of important discoveries.
For example, the process of fermentation had been observed for centuries. It was commonly understood by ancient drinkers that sugars in solution would convert into ethanol and carbon-dioxide over a period of time. But the actual chemistry involved was not well understood until the identification of the role of enzymes. The science was advanced further by the invention of x-ray crystallography, unveiling the structures of chemical compounds. These revelations opened the door to numerous advances in industrial chemistry and pharmacology including the synthesis of artificial enzymes in the 1970s, incidentally by which time related understandings of the encoding of DNA had also become highly advanced.
Not the least of these discoveries however involved the race to find a cure for HIV-AIDS and the development of a class of drugs called protease inhibitors. Dr Kühne’s early work had identified enzymes called proteases that were able to break down proteins and that were essential to the growth and regulation of cells. Anti-retroviral medications emerged through targeting specific proteases within virus cells which in turn disrupted replication of the deadly virus. Fast forward to 2021 and Pfizer cleverly applies the same technology to produce a highly effective anti-viral that suppresses the Sars-Cov2 virus within already infected patients. Vaccination remains the strongest defence against Covid of course. But for those unfortunate enough to become infected, there is now greater hope.
The history of science is illuminated by many such stories where each researcher methodically built upon the work of those who went before. Wilhelm Kühne probably had no idea that his discoveries would one day play such an important role in saving lives and (twice) addressing a devastating global health problem. At a time when disinformation and lack of basic knowledge is eroding faith in science, it’s important that we reflect on how science and technology assists humanity.
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