Researchers work to develop a vaccine for coronavirus

Scientists develop 3D mapping of key proteins of coronavirus for potential vaccines

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Researchers work to develop a vaccine for coronavirus

Amid the current novel coronavirus outbreak, scientists at the UW have developed a three-dimensional map of the key proteins of the coronavirus in an effort to design an effective vaccine.

Lexi Walls, a postdoctoral student at the Veesler Lab, acquired her Ph.D. from the same lab studying the coronavirus. Walls is interested in understanding viral infections by looking at pieces of viruses and understanding how those contribute to infection and how they can help prevent it. 

The lab’s current work focuses on using the information they learned from visualizing the pieces of the coronavirus to design vaccines. 

The coronavirus has spikes that function as its gate into a host cell. Those spikes have proteins that interact with receptors on the host cell, allowing the coronavirus to insert its genetic material into the host cell.

“It tends to make what I like to think of as a handshake between the virus and the host cell,” Walls said.

According to Walls, the spike proteins are the first thing that our immune system interacts with. 

“If we understand how they work, then we can kind of prevent infection,” Walls said. “And if we understand how the immune system responds, then we can understand what’s happening during the infection.” 

Understanding the spike protein’s structure has been a priority for Walls.   

“My Ph.D. was on using microscopy to visualize these spike proteins,” Walls said. “Before I started, no one had ever visualized these proteins at high resolution.”

According to Walls, the visualization of the spike protein can teach us a lot about the function of the protein, how the virus infects our host cells, and how our immune system responds to it.

“Something that you might have heard of is antibodies,” Walls said. “And something that we are really interested in is understanding how antibodies interact with this exterior site of the virus.” 

Antibodies are produced by our immune system as a response to foreign bodies that enter our system. They are shaped randomly, however, the hope is that your body will be able to produce an antibody that fits into and binds to the foreign body to help eliminate it.

The spike protein is the first thing that our immune system encounters, so the antibodies produced attempt to fit the structure of the spike protein. 

“We would capture them kind of in various snapshots as they would exist at the viral surface,” Walls said. “The goal was to basically take these images and get atomic level reconstruction of these various snapshots of the protein doing its different activities.” 

This is especially relevant for designing vaccines. The goal for the vaccine design is to display the spike protein on a platform to better mimic the coronavirus shape. The platform helps present the spike protein in a form much more similar to an actual coronavirus. 

“We are working with the institute for protein design, [assistant professor] Neil King’s lab, which is in our department as well,” Walls said. “They basically have what’s called ‘protein nanocages,’ and we can then present proteins onto the exterior of the cage.” 

According to Walls, the animal model testing process for the vaccine should start in the upcoming weeks. However, given the lengthy process, she doesn’t think that the vaccine will be available to the general public anytime soon.

“I can tell you that for the past month and a half, most people working on this have not slept very much,” Walls said. “But it’s necessary to get the answers, and then our timeline goal is to start testing the vaccine on mice to see whether we get antibody response within the next weeks.”

Despite the lengthy process of getting a vaccine ready, learning about the work of the Veesler Lab helps us stay hopeful in the face of the unknown future developments of COVID-19.  

Even though the vaccine might not be available in the very near future, which opens up possibilities for a mutated coronavirus, the Veesler Lab is working on ensuring that the vaccine will still be applicable to modified versions of the coronavirus.    

“The goal is whatever vaccine we come up with is gonna be able to handle the virus mutations, because the spike protein has so many roles,” Walls said. “So, in order for it to be functional, it has to maintain certain aspects of itself, so that means hopefully less mutations.”

Reach contributing writer Norah Alhindi at Twitter: @nory_0015

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