The 3-D structure of a potential drug target in a newly mapped protein of COVID-19, or coronavirus, has been solved by a team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, the University of Chicago, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, and Northwestern University.
The scientists said their findings suggest drugs previously developed to treat the earlier SARS outbreak could now be developed as effective drugs against COVID-19.
The initial genome analysis and design of constructs for protein synthesis were performed by the bioinformatic group of Adam Godzik, a professor of biomedical sciences at the UC Riverside School of Medicine.
The protein Nsp15 from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, is 89 percent identical to the protein from the earlier outbreak of SARS-CoV. SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the current outbreak of COVID-19. Studies published in 2010 on SARS-CoV revealed inhibition of Nsp15 can slow viral replication. This suggests drugs designed to target Nsp15 could be developed as effective drugs against COVID-19.
“While the SARS-CoV-19 virus is very similar to the SARS virus that caused epidemics in 2003, new structures shed light on the small, but potentially important differences between the two viruses that contribute to the different patterns in the spread and severity of the diseases they cause,” Godzik said.
The structure of Nsp15, which will be released to the scientific community on March 4, was solved by the group of Andrzej Joachimiak,a distinguished fellow at the Argonne National Laboratory, University of Chicago professor, and director of the Structural Biology Center at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility.
“Nsp15 is conserved among coronaviruses and is essential in their lifecycle and virulence,” Joachimiak said. “Initially, Nsp15 was thought to directly participate in viral replication, but more recently, it was proposed to help the virus replicate possibly by interfering with the host’s immune response.”
Mapping a 3-D protein structure of the virus, also called solving the structure, allows scientists to figure out how to interfere in the pathogen’s replication in human cells.
“The Nsp15 protein has been investigated in SARS as a novel target for new drug development, but that never went very far because the SARS epidemic went away, and all new drug development ended,” said Karla Satchell, a professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern, who leads the international team of scientists investigating the structure of the SARS CoV-2 virus to understand how to stop it from replicating. “Some inhibitors were identified but never developed into drugs. The inhibitors that were developed for SARS now could be tested against this protein.”
Rapid upsurge and proliferation of SARS-CoV-2 raised questions about how this virus could become so much more transmissible as compared to the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. The scientists are mapping the proteins to address this issue.
Over the past two months, COVID-19 infected more than 80,000 people and caused at least 2,700 deaths. Although currently mainly concentrated in China, the virus is spreading worldwide and has been found in 46 countries. Millions of people are being quarantined, and the epidemic has impacted the world economy. There is no existing drug for this disease, but various treatment options, such as utilizing medicines effective in other viral ailments, are being attempted.
Godzik, Satchell, and Joachimiak — along with the entire center team — will map the structure of some of the 28 proteins in the virus in order to see where drugs can throw a chemical monkey wrench into its machinery. The proteins are folded globular structures with precisely defined functions and their “active sites” can be targeted with chemical compounds.
The first step is to clone and express the genes of the virus proteins and grow them as protein crystals in miniature ice cube-like trays. The consortium includes nine labs across eight institutions that will participate in this effort.
Above is a modified version of the Northwestern University news release written by Marla Paul.