Breakthrough in coronavirus research may support vaccine design

In a new study, researchers have made a critical breakthrough toward developing a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus by creating the first 3-D atomic-scale map of the part of the virus that attaches to and infects human cells.

Mapping this part, called the spike protein, is an essential step so researchers around the world can develop vaccines and antiviral drugs to combat the virus.

The research was conducted by a team from The University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health

The researchers have spent many years studying other coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

They had already developed methods for locking coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that made them easier to analyze and could effectively turn them into candidates for vaccines.

This experience gave them an advantage over other research teams studying the novel virus.

Just two weeks after receiving the genome sequence of the virus from Chinese researchers, the team had designed and produced samples of their stabilized spike protein.

It took about 12 more days to reconstruct the 3-D atomic-scale map, called a molecular structure, of the spike protein and submit a manuscript to Science, which expedited its peer-review process.

The many steps involved in this process would typically take months to accomplish.

Critical to the success was state-of-the-art technology known as cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) in UT Austin.

Cryo-EM allows researchers to make atomic-scale 3-D models of cellular structures, molecules, and viruses.

The molecule the team produced, and for which they obtained a structure, represents only the extracellular portion of the spike protein, but it is enough to elicit an immune response in people, and thus serve as a vaccine.

Next, the team plans to use their molecule to pursue another line of attack against the virus that causes COVID-19, using the molecule as a “probe” to isolate naturally produced antibodies from patients who have been infected with the novel coronavirus and successfully recovered.

In large enough quantities, these antibodies could help treat a coronavirus infection soon after exposure.

For example, the antibodies could protect soldiers or health care workers sent into an area with high infection rates on too short notice for the immunity from a vaccine to take effect.

The lead author of the study is Jason McLellan, an associate professor at UT Austin.

The study is published in Science.

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