A Chilly Microscope Led Scientists Closer To Treating Coronavirus

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Female Biologist Working on a Vaccine in a Laboratory

Image by Santi Nunez / Stocksy

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 51,000 cases of novel coronavirus or COVID-19 in China, where it originated, and more than 680 around the world. 

Currently, proper hand hygiene and avoiding infected people are the only methods to protect against the disease, but thanks to a 3D printer and a new study published in the journal Science, researchers are one step closer to developing a vaccine

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health created a 3D model of one part of the virus—called the spike protein—which attaches to human cells and leads to infection. 

How will this 3D model help create a vaccine?

The researchers used their prior knowledge of other coronavirus structures, including SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, as well as a genome sequence of COVID-19 to create a sample of their spike protein. The 3D scale is called a molecular structure and in most cases would take several months to produce. 

With access to a technology called cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), the team was able to produce and submit their findings in only two weeks and 12 days. 

Because of their access to this infrastructure, the researchers were among the first to create this kind of breakthrough in the coronavirus outbreak. "It highlights the importance of funding basic research facilities," said lead researcher Jason McLellan, Ph.D., in a news release. 

Though they only replicated one piece of the spike protein, it was sufficient to evoke an immune response and therefore viable to serve as a vaccine. 

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So, what does this mean?

Well, it does not mean they successfully produced a vaccine to protect against coronavirus, but it does mean researchers are one step closer to creating one. 

The scientists are planning on using their findings to isolate antibodies—a protein that helps neutralize pathogens and viruses—from patients who have recovered from coronavirus. 

A sufficient amount of these antibodies might work as an effective treatment to people who have been recently exposed to infected respiratory droplets, when a vaccine would not work quickly enough. 

Though the research is in its conception, the findings are promising and are the first glimpse into a prevention method beyond less effective suggestions like eating garlic, wearing masks, or avoiding airplanes.

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