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Scientists race to help find cure for Coronavirus at Argonne National Lab in Illinois

Posted at 6:06 PM, Mar 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 11:57:03-04

Scientists at the Argonne National Lab outside just of Chicago are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus.

They have developed a 3D image of Nsp15, a protein inside of the virus, alongside researchers from University of Chicago, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and University of California Riverside School of Medicine.

To be clear, Argonne does not have a sample of the virus—instead it has the proteins inside it.

Argonne has shared this image so drug companies and other researchers can study it to find out how to stop the virus from replicating.

"We know where active site of this enzyme is," said Dr. Andrzej Joachimiak, the director of structural biology at the lab. "Active site is the place where the protein recognizes RNA and it cleaves it, it breaks the RNA. So we are trying to use computer modeling to identify the compounds that will bind with that active site and block RNA cleavage."

That won't happen anytime soon. Scientists at Argonne say it will take about a year to find what can block the the virus and another year or so to develop a vaccine. But producing the image is a critical first step, made possible by years of SARS research at the lab.

"When this new coronavirus came along, we had a lot of information already," said Bob Fischetti, the life sciences advisor to the Advanced Photon Source director. "So that helped us accelerate the process of trying to determine the structure of the protein,and try to understand how can you stop what their function is to try to stop them replicating and causing infections."

Fischetti says the coronavirus is very similar to the SARS virus, but little differences are making a big impact.

The research at the lab takes place inside a massive technology facility called the Advanced Photon Source. It's powered by particles moving at the speed of light around a ring three-quarters of a mile long. That's big enough to fit Wrigley Field inside.

68 beam lines off shoot from the ring, and Fischetti says about 16 are studying structural biology. He said three are being used for coronavirus research. He describes the beams as a powerful X-ray, which takes hundreds of images of the protein to make the final 3D image.

Thousands of scientists come to the lab each year to use the facility, and images produced there have led to drugs for AIDS, skin cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, leukemia and more. They have also extensively studied Ebola and Zika virus. More than 100 scientists have received close to $3 million to conduct research there 2018.

The scientists say they are feeling the pressure, but refuse to slow down, especially when it comes to keeping people healthy.

"This is just the beginning," said protein crystallographer Karolina Michalska. "Because there will be more structures needed to be solved."

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