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COVID-19: Advances in Care

Scientist Exposes Potential Target for COVID-19 Treatment

Critical Protein Lets Virus Hide From Immune System

This article is modified from the original, which was published by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Read the entire article.

Your body’s immune system can’t destroy a virus if it can’t find it. SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (coronavirus), uses a protein to help it hide from your immune system. In March 2020, during the early days of the pandemic in the U.S., Karla Satchell, PhD, professor, Department of Microbiology-Immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was the lead investigator on a project that identified the protein.

The protein modifies the genetic material of the virus to make it look more like human cell RNA. This trick keeps your immune system from recognizing it as a threat, allowing the virus to multiply unchecked. If a medication could inhibit the protein, the immune system should be able to detect the virus and destroy it faster.

“This is a really beautiful target because it’s a protein absolutely essential for the virus to replicate,” says Dr. Satchell, director of the Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases (CSGID), an international consortium of scientists who are investigating the structure of the virus to aid development of medications. Dr. Satchell’s team sent the new protein to Purdue University, the drug-discovery site of the center, to aid in the possible development of new medications.

The protein in question, nsp10/nsp16, is actually two proteins bound together, which makes it more difficult to work with. The structure of nsp10/16 was released to the scientific community on March 18, 2020, in the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics Protein Data Bank (RCSB PDB). This is the fourth protein structure of a potential medication target of SARS-CoV-2 determined by the CSGID team of scientists.

“We need multiple drugs to treat this virus because this disease is likely to be with us for a long time,” Dr. Satchell says. “It’s not good enough for us to develop a single drug. If COVID-19 develops a resistance to one drug, then we need others.”

The CSGID is racing to release more structures for medication development. The center’s goal is to determine structures of all of the proteins that are potential medication targets. The team also is collaborating to provide proteins to investigators for designing improved vaccines.

Learn more about Dr. Satchell’s work in a two-part podcast, Investigating the New Coronavirus: Part I and Part II.