Technology

Scientists are using are using a huge microscope to look for drugs for COVID-19

One of the reasons why people find COVID-19 so scary is that there is no cure for it. Yes, there are multiple treatment options, but no real cure. And scientists are looking for one as well as better prevention options. Scientists at the University of British Columbia are using a 13 feet tall cryo-electron microscope hoping to find better ways to fight COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that’s a microscope – it’s about the size of London’s double decker bus! Image credit: University of British Columbia

13 feet or 4 metres – that is as tall as a London double decker bus. But this amazing machine has to be that big, because it packs a lot of technology. Cryo-electron microscopy allows scientists to take pictures at near-atomic resolution to see how various antibody treatments bind to the virus. That is quite an achievement, having in mind that SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 disease, is a hundred thousand times smaller than the size of a pinhead. Regular light microscopes have absolutely no chance of seeing it.  Cryo-electron microscopes use beams of electrons and ultra-cooling to maintain samples at extremely low temperatures.

Because viruses are extremely small, it is almost impossible to visualize them without this massive equipment. Using this cryo-electron microscope scientists are able to see the means SARS-CoV-2 virus has to enter human cells. Like the spike protein – scientists are able to research it on an atomic scale. They can then see how various vaccine candidates help antibodies to bind to the spike protein, preventing it from entering human cells. Antibodies themselves can be used to treat the disease, not just for prevention. 

Sriram Subramaniam, leader of the research team working with the 13 foot microscope, said: “Understanding how these antibodies bind, and neutralize the virus, is crucial because it can be used by researchers who are developing treatments to understand and ultimately reduce drug-related side effects. This is not just a critical element for treatment though. Knowing which types of antibodies provide protection against virus spread—and which ones are ineffective—will be essential in the evaluation of antibodies produced in vaccine trials.”

Scientists at this research centre recently discovered that one antibody-based drug, known as Ab8, prevents and neutralizes the virus. This drug is tiny and it should help it to stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks. Now an international team of scientists is rushing to develop it further so that it would become suitable for a clinical application.

COVID-19 is not a temporary problem. We will not be able to forget about it for years. This is why it is very important to invest good resources to combat it.

 

Source: University of British Columbia


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