"how to turn this new knowledge against the virus itself"
Scientists have revealed that a weakness has been found in Covid-19. More specifically, it is in its protein spike which means the strain could be injected with antiviral drugs to stop it working.
An international team from Bristol University believe they have found a “druggable” pocket within a Sars-CoV-2 sample which could be a potential pandemic “game-changer”.
The scientists hope the discovery could lead to small-molecule antiviral medicines being developed to shut down and eliminate the virus before it enters human cells.
The study used insect cells and was published in the Science journal.
Researchers have said that the new revelation, if applied correctly, could help defeat Covid-19.
The researchers found a small molecule called Linoleic Acid (LA) buried in a tailormade pocket within the spike protein which is located on the virus’ surface.
LA is a free fatty acid which is needed for many cellular functions and cannot be produced by humans.
It is vital for inflammation and immunity levels and is needed to maintain cell membranes in the lungs to help people breathe properly.
Professor Imre Berger said: “Our discovery provides the first direct link between LA, Covid-19 pathological manifestations and the virus itself.
“The question now is how to turn this new knowledge against the virus itself and defeat the pandemic.”
The scientists used electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM), which is a powerful imaging technique.
A 3D structure of the Sars CoV-2 spike was generated, allowing the researchers to look deep inside the spike and identify its molecular composition.
Within its protein, the researchers spotted LA in a pocket.
Professor Berger described the research team as “truly puzzled” by the discovery and its implications.
Proffesor Berger added: “So here we have LA, a molecule which is at the centre of those functions that go haywire in Covid-19 patients, with terrible consequences.
“And the virus that is causing all this chaos, according to our data, grabs and holds on to exactly this molecule – basically disarming much of the body’s defences.”
The team found positives from previous studies on the rhinovirus, which is a virus that causes the common cold.
A similar pocket was exploited to develop potent small molecules which were successfully used as anti-viral drugs in human trials in a clinic.
The Bristol team hopes that a similar strategy can now be used to develop small-molecule antiviral drugs against Covid-19.
Professor Nicola Stonehouse, a professor in molecular virology at Leeds University, said:
“One of the concerns regarding controlling the current Sars-CoV-2 pandemic is the lack of antiviral drugs that specifically target the virus.
“This detailed study defines a pocket in the spike and hence generates very useful data as this could lead to the design of antiviral drugs in the future.
“However, it should be noted that the material used here was made in insect cells, which might be a limitation, and that drug design/screening would be needed in order to select candidate drugs, but it’s a very positive step in the right direction.”
Executive chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Professor Melanie Welham, said the study had produced “fascinating findings”, which could be “vital as we seek ways to control and defeat the virus”.