Powerful antiviral drug developed by Czech scientists gets green light for further tests

Photo: European Commission

Earlier this month, the Czech media reported that a highly efficient antiviral drug developed by Czech scientists has been shelved, reportedly for fear it would compete with existing medicines manufactured by pharmaceutical giants. The substance, known as MK-612, has been designed at the Czech Academy of Sciences' Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry - the same institution where the team of Professor Antonin Holy have developed a number of antiviral drugs used to treat hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.

The future of MK-612 - which gets its name from the Czech researcher Marcela Krecmerova who first developed it - does not look so bleak after all but it is still early days to call it a definite success. Commissioned by the US National Institutes of Health the substance was originally developed to counter possible bio-terrorist attacks, but it could also potentially be used commercially to treat viral diseases.

Before it gets on the market, however, every drug has to undergo a series of lengthy and costly tests. MK-612 is now in the first stage of trials and so far looks very promising. Zdenek Havlas is the head of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry.

"Although the chemical substance was developed by our laboratory, the virological tests are not carried out here as there is no laboratory capable of that in the Czech Republic. We collaborate with the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, the laboratory of Professor Eric DeClercq, a leading establishment in this area. MK-612 has been tested there and the outcome is that it is an exceptionally promising and exceptionally active substance, and so far in tissue culture it has proved to have very little toxicity."

Photo: European Commission
So far MK-612 is proving efficient against the small pox virus, the herpes virus and cytomegaloviruses, which are especially harmful to people with damaged immune systems or AIDS. But it has a long way to go before it can be finally tested on humans. Dr Zdenek Havlas says that there is always a possibility that the project, involving the Czech institute, the Catholic University in Leuven and the US pharmaceutical company Gilead, will be scrapped.

"Now the crucial thing is how the substance will react with living organisms, animals and eventually humans. Of course there is a huge risk the project will be halted. If we consider the possible toxicity of the drug and all the stages of the clinical tests - in every step there is a danger that despite its known advantages the substance will prove unusable as a medicine. In such a case, all the money invested in the development would have been spent in vain."