Northwestern University
The Nsp15 protein

Coronavirus’ Weak Spot Possibly Identified

March 6, 2020
Drug makers now have a target in the fight against the current viral infection.

Biochemists are studying Nsp15, a newly mapped protein of SARS-CoV-s, the virus this is causing the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The structure was mapped by a team of scientists from the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the University of California. The team say its findings suggest drugs that had been in development to treat the earlier SARS outbreak could now be developed and be effective against COVID-19.

Nsp15 is 89% identical to the protein from the earlier outbreak of SARS-CoV. Studies published in 2010 on SARS-CoV revealed that inhibition of Nsp15 slows viral replication. This suggests drugs designed to target Nsp15 could be developed and be effective against the current COVID-19.

Mapping a 3D protein structure of the virus helps scientists determine out how to interfere in the pathogen’s replication in human cells.

The Nsp15 protein was investigated as a novel target for drug development in the fight against SARS, but that never went far because the SARS epidemic went away and all drug development ended. Some inhibitors were identified back then but never developed into drugs. Now, inhibitors developed for SARS could be tested against this protein.

Another question researchers hope to answer about the current viral infections is how this coronavirus could became so much more transmissible as compared to the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. The scientists are mapping more proteins to address this issue.

SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the current outbreak of COVID-19. Over the past two months, the pathogen infected more than 80,000 people and caused at least 2,700 deaths. Although currently mainly concentrated in China, the virus is spreading worldwide and has been found in 46 countries. Millions of people are being quarantined and the epidemic has affected the world economy. There is no drug for the disease, but various treatment options—for example, using medicines effective in other viral ailments—are being attempted.

Researchers will map the structure of the 28 proteins in the virus to see where drugs can interfere with its metabolism. Proteins are folded globular structures with precisely defined function and their active sites” can be targeted with chemical compounds.

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