Cryo-Electron Microscopy Analysis of Coronavirus Spike Protein May Point Way to Effective Vaccine Strategies

High-resolution cryo-electron microscopy and supercomputing have now made it possible to analyze, in detail, the infection mechanisms of coronaviruses. These viruses are notorious for attacking the respiratory tract of humans and animals. A research team that included scientists from the University of Washington (UW), the Pasteur Institute, and the University of Utrecht has obtained an atomic model of a coronavirus spike protein that promotes entry into cells. Analysis of the model is providing ideas for specific vaccine strategies. The study results are outlined in a study published online in Nature on February 8, 2016. David Veesler, UW Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, headed the project. The article is titled “Cryo-Electron Microscopy Structure of a Coronavirus Spike Glycoprotein Trimer.” Coronaviruses, with their crowns of spikes, are responsible for almost a third of mild, cold-like symptoms and atypical pneumonia worldwide, Dr. Veesler explained. But deadly forms of coronaviruses emerged in the form of SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus) in 2002 and of MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) in 2012 with fatality rates between 10 percent and 37 percent. These outbreaks of deadly pneumonia showed that coronaviruses can be transmitted from various animals to people. Currently, only six coronaviruses are known to infect people, but many coronaviruses naturally infect animals. The recent deadly outbreaks resulted from coronaviruses overcoming the species barrier. This suggests that other new, emerging coronavirus with pandemic potential are likely to emerge. There are presently no approved vaccines or antiviral treatments against SARS-CoV or MERS-CoV.
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