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An insider’s view into the battle against COVID-19 in the lab

Taking the long view fighting COVID-19

While the world has been focused on a vaccine, Professor Imre Berger is taking the long view on coronavirus, by exploring how best to treat the virus as an ongoing problem, including targeting ‘hot zones’.

Download the Science podcast to get the inside story about how cloud computing, cryoEM and scientific ingenuity led to the surprising discovery of a druggable pocket in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which could change how we fight COVID-19. 

Taking a closer look

An international team led by Professor Christine Schaffitzel from Bristol’s School of Biochemistry and Professor Berger from the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, University of Bristol, used electron cryo-microscopy (cryoEM) to analyze the SARS-CoV-2 spike at near atomic resolution.

A 3D model of the spike protein was generated, allowing the team to identify its molecular composition. This work was made by possible by an Oracle for Research grant, providing the research team with access to Oracle’s high-performance cloud computing.

In the podcast, Professor Berger explained how building a model from thousands of movies can be done in a matter of hours by ‘blasting it on the cloud,’ instead of piecing individual frames together, which can take months. “Speed is everything in a pandemic, and our colleagues at Oracle made things happen at an incredible pace,” he said.

The use of these technologies enabled the discovery of a druggable pocket in the spike, which is filled with a small molecule – linoleic acid – that locks the spike down, rendering it non-infectious. The idea is that this ‘lock’ can be applied to stop the virus from entering cells, and start replicating. 

Looking to the future

Since the team’s ground-breaking study was published last fall, Professor Berger and his team have been working to translate the research into a range of therapeutic antiviral products developed by the team’s new biotech spin-out Halo Therapeutics. These products are targeting ‘hot zones where the virus wreaks havoc. Halo’s first product is a nasal spray to target the zone where the virus invades the body.

“Even as global attention shifts to vaccine campaigns to bring the current pandemic under control, the need for effective COVID-19 treatments persists,” said Alison Derbenwick Miller, vice president, Oracle for Research. “The unfortunate reality is that coronaviruses are not going away, and the druggable pocket discovered by Professors Berger and Schaffitzel using Oracle high-performance cloud computing continues to be highly relevant to ongoing work to develop antiviral drugs effective against SARS-CoV-2.”

To hear more about Professor Berger and his team’s work, download the Science podcast.

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