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September 29, 2020

Armoring Cells Against COVID-19

For months, people have been asking the same questions about COVID-19: How can we contain the virus but live something like a normal life? Will we ever have better treatments? 

Adam Lacy-Hulbert

BRI’s Adam Lacy-Hulbert, PhD, has been hunting down answers to a different question: Can we keep the virus from infecting us in the first place?

Dr. Lacy-Hulbert, Case Western Reserve University's Anna Bruchez, PhD, and their team recently used an innovative method to study how COVID-19 infects your body. They found that some genes can put protective armor around your cells — which traps the virus and makes it impossible to infect you. Turning on those genes could be a promising new way to fight off COVID-19 and other viruses. Their findings were recently published in Science, a prestigious academic journal.

“It could be possible to develop a drug that turns on these genes so the virus can’t infect you,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “This approach doesn’t just work for COVID-19 — it works for Ebola and SARS too."

Trapping the Virus in a Bubble

When the pandemic started, Dr. Lacy-Hulbert’s team wanted to see if an approach they’d found to curb other viruses might also work for COVID-19.

The researchers knew that viruses infect you by inserting their genetic code into your cells. Viruses then trick your body into making a bunch of virus copies, which enables them to travel through your body and make you sick. But our team learned that a handful of cells don’t get infected: Viruses enter these cells, but they have an armor-like coating that traps them inside.

“The virus basically gets trapped in a bubble,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “It can’t inject its genetic code or replicate. Eventually, your immune system clears those cells out and you never get sick.”

A Virus’ Achilles Heel

In the early 2010s, Dr. Lacy-Hulbert’s team developed a novel screening technique to study Ebola. They learned the deadly virus had an Achilles heel: A gene called MHC class II transactivator (CIITA).

They found CIITA is what enables some cells to trap the virus in the bubble and prevent infection: When the gene is turned on, it turns on another gene, which enables the protective armor. They later tried turning this gene on and exposing cells to SARS — and it also prevented SARS infections.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the research team was quick to launch a study examining if this new coronavirus shared the same Achilles heel.

“We found that the same genes protected cells against COVID-19,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “That’s really important, because it shows that the genes aren’t virus-specific — they make cells resistant to multiple viruses.”

The research team’s next steps are to run a more comprehensive screening, looking at millions of cells infected with COVID-19. They hope this will help them find additional genes that may help protect you from the virus.

“The more we know about how viruses infect cells — and the more we learn about how to block those infections — the better we’re equipped to fight this virus and others,” Dr. Lacy-Hulbert says. “We hope our insights will open up new avenues to help solve this pandemic and to treat viruses that impact people around the world.”

Layout 2D Using Genes to Fight COVID-19

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