University of Manitoba lab gets funding boost to take extremely close look at COVID-19

A funding boost for a team of University of Manitoba researchers will cover the costs of sophisticated microscope camera technology that will give them an extremely close look at the novel coronavirus and could help save lives.

“By generating high resolution, very sharp images of the virus in action we not only understand how they look like in three dimensions, we more importantly understand how they work and why they are so dangerous,” said U of M biochemistry Prof. Jörg Stetefeld.

Federal Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains announced $28 million in supports through the Canada Foundation for Innovation on Friday. Stetefeld and his colleagues Nediljko Budisa, Brian Mark, Kevin Coombs and Jason Kindrachuk received $950,000.

Stetefeld, who is also a Canada Research Chair in structural biology and biophysics, leads a team that usually focuses on cancer, but when the pandemic hit they switched gears.

The lab already had the capacity to make proteins for experimental purposes and focused on receptors, or “little antenna proteins” on cells. 

They also study the three-dimensional shapes of proteins and nucleic acids using a process known as cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), and they’ll use that approach on the novel coronavirus to help influence the development of new therapeutics and diagnostics.

A previous $1.5-million investment from the U of M faculty of science helped them buy a cryo-EM microscope that arrived about a month ago. The new federal funds will help cover costs for what’s known as a direct electron detector, which is essentially a fancy camera.

High-resolution views of coronavirus

Pairing these two things together, the team will be able to zoom in to the particle level, at just about atomic resolution, with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 .

That’s about the highest resolution possible for a biological sample, in this case SARS-CoV-2 proteins, he said.

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The ‘crown-like’ spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name. Protein-based vaccines are based on the spike protein or fragments of it. (NIAID-RML via Reuters)

SARS-CoV-2 has crown-like spike proteins that give coronaviruses their names because of how they protrude from the surface of virus particles. The spikes are really good at binding with our cells, Stetefeld said.

The new gear could show how coronavirus proteins stand up to a variety of drugs, antibodies and vaccines the lab can throw at them.

By studying these infinitesimally tiny processes with the help of artificial intelligence programs, they may be able find vulnerabilities in the virus’s armour that can be exploited, said Stetefeld.

“Understanding their structure and the function, we are in a prime position to interfere,” he said, adding knowing the shape of the virus can help guide structure-based drug design.

“If you can block that interaction you can combat the danger or risk of being approached by this virus.”

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