IIT Mandi researchers discover Phytochemicals that inhibit the COVID-19 virus

Researchers shows that phytochemical-rich petals of Rhododendron arboreum found in the Himalayan region, locally called “Buransh” shows antiviral activity and fight against the virus

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New Delhi: Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi and The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, have identified Phytochemicals in the petals of a Himalayan plant that could potentially be used to treat COVID-19 infections.
The findings of the research team have been recently published in the journal ‘Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics’. The research was led by Dr Shyam Kumar Masakapalli, Associate Professor, BioX Centre, School of Basic Science, IIT Mandi and Dr Ranjan Nanda, Translational Health Group and Dr Sujatha Sunil, Vector Borne Disease Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi.  The paper has been co-authored by Dr Maneesh Lingwan, Ms Shagun Shagun, Ms Falak Pahwa, Mr Ankit Kumar, Mr Dileep Kumar Verma, Mr Yogesh Pant, Mr Lingarao V. K. Kamatam and Ms. Bandna Kumari.
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers are trying to understand the nature of the virus and discovering new ways to prevent the infection. While vaccination is one route to providing the body with the fighting power against the virus, there is a worldwide search for non-vaccine medicines that can prevent viral invasion of the human body. These medicines use chemicals that either bind to the receptors in our body cells and prevent the virus from entering them or act on the virus itself and prevent its replication inside our bodies.
Dr Shyam Kumar Masakapalli, Associate Professor, BioX Centre, School of Basic Science, IIT Mandi, says, “Among the different types of therapeutic agents being studied, phytochemicals – chemicals derived from plants – are considered particularly promising because of their synergistic activity and natural source with fewer toxicity issues. We are hunting for promising molecules from the Himalayan flora using multi-disciplinary approaches”
The petals of the Himalayan Buransh plant, scientifically called Rhododendron arboreum, are consumed in various forms by the local population for its varied health benefits. The scientists from IIT Mandi and ICGEB set out to scientifically test the extracts containing various phytochemicals in it, with particular focus on antiviral activity. The researchers extracted the phytochemicals from the Buransh petals and performed biochemical assays and computational simulation studies to understand its antiviral properties.
Dr Ranjan Nanda, Translational Health Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi, says, “We have profiled and investigated the phytochemicals of Rhododendron arboreum petals sourced from Himalayan flora and have found it to be a promising candidate against the COVID virus.”
Hot water extracts from these petals were found to be rich in quinic acid and its derivatives. Molecular dynamics studies showed that these phytochemicals have two kinds of effects against the virus.  They bound to the main protease – an enzyme that plays an important role in viral replication – and to the Human Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme-2 (ACE2) that mediates viral entry into the host cells.
The researchers also showed through experimental assays that non-toxic doses of the petal extracts can inhibit COVID infection in Vero E6 cells (cells derived from kidney of an African green monkey that are commonly used to study infectivity of virus and bacteria), without any adverse effects on the cells themselves.
Dr Sujatha Sunil, Vector Borne Disease Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi, says, “A combination of the phytochemical profiling, computer simulations and in vitro anti-viral assays showed that the extracts from the Buransh petals inhibited the replication of the COVID-19 virus in a dose-dependent manner.”
The findings support the urgent need for further scientific studies aimed at finding specific bioactive drug candidates from R. arboreum, in vivo and clinical trials against COVID-19. The research team also plans to carry out additional studies to understand the precise mechanism of inhibition of COVID-19 replication by specific phytochemicals from Buransh petals.