A team led by an Indian-born researcher has discovered a key vulnerability in all major variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron subvariants recently appeared.
The weakness can be targeted with neutralizing antibodies, potentially paving the way for treatments that would be universally effective across all variants, the researchers said.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, used cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to reveal the atomic-level structure of the vulnerable spot on the virus’ spike protein, known as the epitope. – or part to which an antibody binds.
The Spike protein is used by the SARS-CoV-2 virus to enter and infect human cells. The researchers also described an antibody fragment called VH Ab6 that is able to bind to this site and neutralize each major variant.
“This is a highly adaptable virus that has evolved to evade most existing antibody treatments, as well as much of the immunity conferred by vaccines and natural infections,” Sriram Subramaniam said. , a professor at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study. .
“This study reveals a weak point that is largely unchanged across variants and can be neutralized by an antibody fragment. It paves the way for the design of pan-variant treatments that could potentially help many vulnerable people,” Mr. Subramaniam said. Antibodies are naturally produced by our bodies to fight infections, but can also be made in the lab and given to patients as a treatment.
While several antibody treatments have been developed for COVID-19, their effectiveness has declined in the face of highly mutated variants like Omicron.
“Antibodies attach to a virus in a very specific way, like a key that goes into a lock. But when the virus mutates, the key no longer fits,” Subramaniam said.
“We were looking for master keys – antibodies that continue to neutralize the virus even after many mutations,” he added.
The “master key” identified by the researchers is the VH Ab6 antibody fragment, which has been shown to be effective against Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Kappa, Epsilon and Omicron variants.
The fragment neutralizes SARS-CoV-2 by attaching to the epitope on the spike protein and preventing the virus from entering human cells.
By mapping the molecular structure of each spike protein, the team looked for areas of vulnerability that could shed light on new treatments.
“The epitope we describe in this paper is mostly removed from mutation hotspots, which is why its capabilities are preserved across variants,” Subramaniam said.
“Now that we’ve described the structure of this site in detail, it opens up a whole new realm of processing possibilities,” he said.
Subramaniam said this key vulnerability can now be exploited by drugmakers, and because the site is relatively mutation-free, the resulting treatments could be effective against existing, and even future, variants.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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