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UTSW Researchers Study A Human Protein That Could Inhibit COVID-19

Associated Press
An undated electron microscope image shows the novel coronavirus emerging from the surface of cells.

Researchers all over the world are scrambling to figure out the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Dr. John Schoggins, a professor of medical research at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, is part of an international team that's looking into a protein produced by the human immune system that could inhibit COVID-19.


How COVID-19 Infects People

Yeah, so this coronavirus is like other coronaviruses that have come before it including SARS and MERS, and these viruses are transmitted from person to person by respiratory droplets, for example, that come from sneezing or coughing.

Someone may then touch a surface that has these droplets or it may transmit through the air, get into someone's nose, and eventually work its way in to infect the cells in the respiratory tract or the nasal cavity.

How They Made The Discovery

This is a protein that we actually uncovered a number of years back. Some of our collaborators were trying to identify proteins that could inhibit coronaviruses. And so they initially discovered this with a sort of mild coronavirus, and they found out that it was able to really suppress this, the virus.

What that means is in cultured cells, if you take cells in a petri dish and this protein is present in the cells, the virus can no longer fuse with the cells. So if you think about the way these viruses work is, if you think about say two soap bubbles on a kitchen surface sort of a few inches apart, as one of those soap bubbles sort of gets near the other soap bubble, the soap will basically merge and fuse into one larger bubble.

And that's exactly how the viruses work too. They have a lipid envelope that allows them to fuse with the cells. And so what we've uncovered is that this protein is able to inhibit the fusion of the virus with the cells in a petri dish.","_id":"00000174-20f1-d47e-a1f7-72f5d24c0000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">">","_id":"00000174-20f1-d47e-a1f7-72f5d24c0000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">

Testing In Mice

The human and the mouse proteins behave pretty similarly as far as we know, and that virus actually causes a liver disease, a hepatitis rather than a respiratory disease.

So if you take mice that have the protein and compare them to mice that don't have the protein, without the protein the mice become very sick. They really can't control the viral infection.

It remains to be seen whether or not this actually holds out in humans with an active respiratory COVID-19 infection, we don't know the answer to that yet. 

Human Trials And Government Interest

Unfortunately, this is a years-long process for actual therapies.

I think it's important to temper expectations that these discoveries can be translated in a matter of weeks or months or even a year or two into something therapeutic. More importantly, it's the fundamental process of basic science discovery.

So we have this protein, we know the cells make it, we know the protein can inhibit the infection, but we actually don't know how.

Really the next step in the research is to understand exactly how that process works. How is the fusion of the virus with the cells inhibited? Can we basically commandeer or co-op that process so that we can develop a therapy, maybe make a drug make, maybe make a mimic somehow to recreate that process that our bodies naturally do.

And no I have not been approached by the government about a funding for this, but we actually have some grants and I suspect there will be very soon some available funding for more COVID-19 research.

Dr. John Schoggins is with UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.