Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health have made a critical breakthrough toward developing a vaccine for the 2019 novel coronavirus by creating the first 3D atomic scale map of the part of the virus that attaches to and infects human cells.
Mapping this part, called the spike protein, is an essential step so researchers around the world can develop vaccines and antiviral drugs to combat the virus. The paper was published Wednesday, Feb. 19 in the journal Science.
The scientific team is also working on a related viable vaccine candidate stemming from the research.
Jason McLellan, associate professor at UT Austin who led the research, and his colleagues have spent many years studying other coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV. They had already developed methods for locking coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that made them easier to analyze and could effectively turn them into candidates for vaccines. This experience gave them an advantage over other research teams studying the novel virus.
“As soon as we knew this was a coronavirus, we felt we had to jump at it,” McLellan said, “because we could be one of the first ones to get this structure. We knew exactly what mutations to put into this, because we’ve already shown these mutations work for a bunch of other coronaviruses.”