Scientists at Argonne National Lab, UChicago search for COVID19 treatments and analysis

As COVID-19 makes its way around the world, scientists are working around the clock to analyze the virus to find new treatments and cures and predict how it will propagate through the population.

Some of their most powerful tools are supercomputers and particle accelerators, including those at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory affiliated with the University of Chicago.

X-rays for the cure

To make drugs that work against COVID-19, we first need to find a biochemical “key”—an inhibitor molecule that will nestle perfectly into the nooks and crannies of one or more of the 28 proteins that make up the virus. While researchers have already sequenced the genes of the virus, they also need to know what the shape of each protein looks like when it is fully assembled.

This requires a technique called macromolecular X-ray crystallography, in which scientists grow tiny crystals and then illuminate them in an incredibly high-energy X-ray beam to get a snapshot of its physical structure. Such X-ray beams exist only at a few specialized sites around the world, and one of them is Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source.

By mid-March, researchers from around the country had used the Advanced Photon Source to characterize roughly a dozen proteins from SARS-CoV-2. They even managed to catch glimpses of several of them with potential inhibitor molecules “in action.”

“The fortunate thing is that we have a bit of a head start,” said Bob Fischetti, who heads the Advanced Photon Source’s efforts in life sciences. “This virus is similar but not identical to the SARS outbreak in 2002, and 70 structures of proteins from several different coronaviruses had been acquired using data from APS beamlines prior to the recent outbreak.”

That means researchers have background information on how to express, purify and crystallize these proteins, which makes the structures come more quickly, “right now about a few a week,” he said.

Read more at UChicago News.