Argonne scientists studying coronavirus proteins to seek treatment

  • Bob Fischetti of Argonne National Laboratory tells hospital executives and federal lawmakers Monday of the lab's efforts to study the proteins that make up the new coronavirus in an attempt to find a drug to treat it.

      Bob Fischetti of Argonne National Laboratory tells hospital executives and federal lawmakers Monday of the lab's efforts to study the proteins that make up the new coronavirus in an attempt to find a drug to treat it. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/19/2020 7:53 AM

They don't have any of the live virus, but experts at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont are studying the proteins that make up the new coronavirus in an attempt to find drugs that could treat it.

Bob Fischetti, group leader and life science adviser at the Argonne Advanced Photon Source, told hospital officials and federal lawmakers Monday of the laboratory's efforts to study coronavirus proteins under an X-ray microscope.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Fischetti said he and his colleagues and collaborators are working to identify potential drug molecules that could bind to atoms within the coronavirus proteins and render them ineffective.

"In this case right now, we don't have any good drugs against the SARS cov2 virus that causes COVID-19," Fischetti said.

The new virus is molecularly similar to the virus that caused the SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, outbreak in 2003, Fischetti said. At that time, Argonne and other labs made progress studying potential treatments.

"We have a lot of background information, but unfortunately, once that epidemic rolled off, research slowed and the progress that had been made was not continued to the point of actually developing a drug for SARS," Fischetti said Monday during a roundtable at Edward Hospital in Naperville. "Had we continued that research, we may have something that could have been much more rapidly adapted and brought out to help deal with the SARS cov2 virus and COVID-19 infections that we're seeing."

In the absence of such drugs, Fischetti and others using 16 of the X-ray beam lines at Argonne's Photon Source are "actively doubling down focusing" on addressing COVID-19 through several research collaborations.

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"We want to understand how do these (drugs) bind, from the structural information that we gather, and how can one improve that, design a better drug -- something that will bind more effectively and can be then brought to market that will be safe," he said.

The molecular structure of the new coronavirus is a spherical object with protruding spikes. The spikes, Fischetti said, are important to how the virus infects healthy cells.

Researchers are studying the spike proteins that make invasions into healthy cells as well as others among the 28 total proteins in the virus molecule that are related to replication. Finding a drug molecule that can inhibit the workings of the replication proteins can help stop the spread of the disease, Fischetti said.

So far, researchers at Argonne, using the power of supercomputers, have identified roughly 100 compounds -- from a pool of 250 million -- that could be repurposed or modified into potential drugs to treat COVID-19.

"There are a lot of similarities between the proteins in the previous SARS and this current (virus)," Fischetti said. "We're focusing on the differences and trying to understand how that has played into the infectivity of this virus."

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