How cancer research played a role in the understanding of COVID-19 treatment

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Even some scientists are surprised at how rapidly vaccines and therapies for COVID-19 have been developed.

Dr. Shelley Earp believes you can, in part, thank cancer researchers who have spent years working on treatments that target the immune system.

Earp, the director of UNC's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, said one of the reasons scientists have been able to so quickly develop therapies and vaccines for COVID-19 is because of immunology research.

A lot of that groundwork was laid by cancer scientists at UNC and elsewhere, according to Earp, who said, "It started years ago, when we understood that 20% of the world's cancers are caused by viruses."

For years the Lineberger Center's researchers have partnered with other UNC units like the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Eschelman School of Pharmacy to study immunology drugs in the fight against viruses and viral cancer, according to Earp.

And now that work is helping in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

"Luckily, we have the basic fundamental scientists that could turn on a dime, and create new knowledge with respect to this virus in this pandemic," Earp noted.

One of the most effective treatments so far for COVID-19 has been a drug cocktail that includes the anti-viral remdesivir.

"Cancer center members and School of Pharmacy and in School of Public Health, and the School of Medicine, developed drugs like remdesivir."

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Remdesivir, an antiviral drug that was developed right here in Triangle, is playing a key role in President Trump's path to recovery from COVID-19.

Chapel Hill scientists also developed the path for studying the effects of the coronavirus according to Earp who said, "It was actually a cancer center core at the University of North Carolina that allowed the development of a mouse that could be infected with SARS-CoV-2."

UNC has also been involved in the development of monoclonal antibodies, another part of that COVID-19 drug cocktail that was also famously given to then-president Donald Trump.

Those antibodies mimic the body's natural immune response to kill invading cells.

And they too are the direct result of cancer research, Earp said.

"The development of immunotherapy for cancer is a tribute to the human mind. It comes actually from mouse research that showed that we could, we could manipulate the immune system to attack tumor cells."

Earp says the staff at the Lineberger Center should also be commended for their efforts on behalf of cancer patients during the pandemic, making sure they could continue their treatments safely.
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