Unravelling coronavirus structure for effective vaccine and medication

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WHILE vaccinations against SARS-CoV-2 have already begun in many countries, effective medication for COVID-19 treatment has not yet been identified. Scientists at Max Planck Institutes (MPI) are now closely investigating the surface structures of SARS-CoV-2 and the processes by which the virus replicates in infected cells to find new targets for possible therapies.

Martin Beck and Gerhard Hummer and their working groups at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt, Germany have been studying the structure of the spike protein in detail. Beck deciphered the protein structure at near-atomic resolution. From this data, Hummer was able to analyze the properties of the spike protein in its natural environment in computer simulations. The researchers then came to some surprising conclusions.

The stalk with which the protein is anchored on the surface of the virus proved to be unexpectedly flexible. Hummer explained that the protein needs this mobility to optimally bind to the receptor on the target cell. The analyses also showed that antibodies can bind well to the upper part of the spike protein, while other parts of the protein are coated with sugar chains to protect them from being recognized by the immune system. “With this knowledge, we can now identify areas that may be targeted for vaccines or therapeutic antibodies”, explains Hummer.

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