A team of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan has uncovered some details about the structure of the virus that causes COVID-19, and it is leading to optimism about the possibility of new treatment options. 

The team consisted of Dr. Andrey Grishin from the College of Medicine and Dr. Nataliya Dolgova from the College of Arts and Science. They collaborated with Dr. Olivier Fissette at USask Advanced Research Computing, and the computer modelling was verified in live virus tests by Dr. Darryl Falzarano and Shelby Landreth at USask Vaccine and Infections Disease Organization. 

The team also involved collaboration with three Canada Research Chairs – Dr. Miroslaw Cygler with the College of Medicine, and Dr. Ingrid Pickering and Dr. Graham George with the College of Arts and Science. 

“One of the many disulphides in the spikes seems to be very important in holding the spikes together, and breaking the disulphides disrupts viral infectivity,” said Dr. George in a written release. “It might be the basis of a new treatment, and should work for any future virus variants.” 

The research looked at the spike proteins of the virus, which attach to cells within the body. The spikes themselves contain molecular structures known as disulphides – pairs of sulphur atoms. The team then looked at what would happen if the spike disulphides are disrupted. They wanted to know if this would result in the virus losing its ability to cause infection. 

Work determined the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein is dependent on the disulphides, and reducing the bonds makes it unstable.  

The team was able to show that by creating the right environment, they were able to inhibit viral replication. The team is now looking at conducting future investigations into the specifics of a treatment that would disrupt the structure of the virus itself. 

The research appears in the January 30th edition of the Journal of Molecular Biology. The work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs program and the University of Saskatchewan. You can read the full paper in the Journal of Molecular Biology.