VANCOUVER—Researchers at the University of British Columbia say they have discovered a weakness in major strains of COVID-19 that could lead to universally effective treatments for people infected with most variants of the virus.
Over time, COVID has managed to mutate and get ahead of treatments, but this discovery will allow researchers to target a specific weak spot found in the virus to neutralize it, they say.
“Knowing that this site exists, that it has been virtually unchanged across variants, tells us where we need to focus and refine antibody design so that we can make a better antibody,” says Sriram Subramaniam, a professor in the UBC medical school. and lead author. of the study.
“The real value of discovery is identifying where to focus design efforts.”
The applications of the discovery lie in treatment, he said, rather than in vaccines.
The vulnerability is found in all major variants, including the Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 sub-variants. The findings will be published Thursday in the research journal Nature Communications.
The UBC team is the same one that, last December, was the first in the world to obtain a molecular-level aspect of the Omicron variant using cryo-electron microscopy. The method uses electron beams to visualize the shapes of tissues.
At the time, the researchers found that the variant’s spike protein, which viruses use to enter and infect cells, mutated more than other variants.
Now, through the same technology, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, they have found a site on the spike protein where antibodies can attach to and neutralize the variant. The vulnerability doesn’t mutate often, Subramaniam said.
“It is virtually certain that we will see more mutations over time,” Subramaniam said. “The goal really here is to get ahead of the virus and identify which parts are least likely to mutate and zero there.”
According to Health Canada, the country had just over 25,000 COVID cases in the first week of August, the most recent data available. The figure brings the country’s total case count to 4.1 million since the start of COVID with around 43,000 deaths.
Cases reached record levels in late 2021 and early 2022 as the highly infectious Omicron variant gained a foothold around the world.
Subramaniam explains that antibodies are like a key that fits a lock when the correct one is used to fight a virus. When the virus mutates, the key no longer works. Investigators have indeed been searching for a skeleton key.
The findings also discuss how the VH ab6 antibody fragment has been effective against major COVID variants. The antibody binds to the identified weak spot and prevents it from entering human cells. Subramaniam said it opens up “a whole new realm” for treatments.
“The fact that you can join all these variants is exciting,” he said.
Although antibodies have been developed to fight COVID, they have also weakened as the virus mutated over time. But with the discovery of this weak spot in the spike proteins of COVID, more potent antibodies can be developed, Subramaniam said.
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