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COVID has a weakness, and this could be a game-changer

Scientists at UC Riverside have exposed what could be the most significant vulnerability of the COVID virus. The experts have determined that the virus relies heavily on certain human proteins to replicate itself. 

This discovery may pave the way for treatments that can prevent the COVID virus from causing illness in people.

COVID virus replication 

Published in the journal Viruses, the research paper highlights the key role of the protein named “N” in the COVID virus. 

This protein, responsible for the virus’s replication process, cannot function independently. It requires the support of human cells to achieve its purpose.

Biological process

The significance of this finding involves a basic biological process. In humans, genetic information stored in DNA gets transcribed into messenger RNA. 

This RNA then gets translated into functional proteins, essential for various cellular activities like growth and inter-cellular communication. After this, proteins undergo post-translational modifications, further refining them for their specific roles.

SUMOylation and the COVID virus

This is where the COVID virus gets clever. It utilizes a specific human post-translation process, termed SUMOylation. The process directs the N protein of the virus to an appropriate location inside human cells. 

Once positioned correctly, the protein starts replicating the virus’s genes, creating new infectious particles, and propelling the invasion.

Proteomics core laboratory 

“In the wrong location, the virus cannot infect us,” said study co-author Quanqing Zhang, the manager of the proteomics core laboratory at UCR’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology. 

Proteomics is the study of all the proteins that an organism makes, how they are modified by other enzymes, and the roles they play in a living organism. 

“If someone gets an infection, maybe one of his or her proteins will appear differently than it was before. That’s what we’re looking for in our facility,” Zhang said.

Interactions between proteins 

Using innovative techniques involving fluorescent glow, the researchers were able to visually track interactions between the virus and human proteins.

“We used fluorescent glow to show us where the virus is interacting with human proteins and making new virions – infectious viral particles,” explained study co-author Professor Jiayu Liao.  

“This method is more sensitive than other techniques and gives us a more comprehensive view of all the interactions between the human and viral proteins.”

Similar dependency in influenza

Remarkably, earlier research from the same team identified a similar dependency in Influenza A and Influenza B viruses. Both of these common flu strains also rely on the SUMOylation process for replication.

This recent study reaffirms the idea that blocking COVID’s access to these human proteins can empower our immune systems to neutralize the virus. 

COVID virus study implications 

Currently the most effective treatment for COVID is Paxlovid, which inhibits virus replication. But patients need to take it within three days following infection. 

“If you take it after that it won’t be so effective,” said Liao. “A new medication based on this discovery would be useful to patients at all stages of infection.”

The similarities between viruses may enable a whole new class of antiviral medication. With sufficient support, Liao estimates these can be developed within five years.

“I think other viruses might work this way as well,” Liao said. “Ultimately, we would like to block the flu as well as COVID, and potentially other viruses such as RSV and Ebola. We are making new discoveries to help make this happen.”

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