Researchers search for clues to COVID-19 treatment

Two groups of researchers drew on SLAC tools to better understand how to target a key part of the virus that causes COVID-19

Vaccination, masks and physical distancing help limit the spread of COVID-19 – but, researchers say, the disease is still going to infect people, and doctors are still going to need better medicines to treat patients. This may be especially true for cancer patients and other at-risk people who may lack a sufficiently strong immune system to benefit from the vaccine. 

Now, two teams working in part at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have found some clues that could, down the road, lead to new COVID drugs. 

The researchers, from John Tainer’s lab at MD Anderson Cancer Center and James Fraser’s group at the University of California, San Francisco, focused on a molecular structure that is common to all coronaviruses but has proven especially troublesome in the case of the virus that causes COVID-19. The structure contributes both to the virus’s ability to replicate and to immune system overreactions that have proven particularly deadly.

The trouble, Fraser said, is that scientists don’t know what kinds of molecules would bind to the structure, known as the Nsp3 macrodomain, let alone how to combine such molecules to interfere with its deadly work. 

To remedy that problem, Fraser’s group screened several thousand molecules at facilities including SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) to see where and how well the molecules bound to crystallized forms of Nsp3. The team combined those results with computer models to understand how the molecules might affect the structure of the macrodomain and whether they might help inhibit its function. 

Read more on the SLAC website

Promising candidates identified for COVID drugs

A team of researchers has identified several candidates for drugs against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 at DESY´s high-brilliance X-ray lightsource PETRA III. They bind to an important protein of the virus and could thus be the basis for a drug against Covid-19.

In a so-called X-ray screening, the researchers, under the leadership of DESY, tested almost 6000 known active substances that already exist for the treatment of other diseases in a short amount of time. After measuring about 7000 samples, the team was able to identify a total of 37 substances that bind to the main protease (Mpro) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the scientists report online today in the journal Science. Seven of these substances inhibit the activity of the protein and thus slow down the multiplication of the virus. Two of them do this so promisingly that they are currently under further investigation in preclinical studies. This drug screening – probably the largest of its kind – also revealed a new binding site on the main protease of the virus to which drugs can couple.

Read more on the DESY website

Image: In the control hutch of the PETRA III beamline P11, DESY researcher Wiebke Ewert shows on a so-called electron density map where a drug candidate (green) binds to the main protease of the corona virus (blue).

Credit: DESY, Christian Schmid