Adam-Lacy-Hulbert-PhD-smiling-in-labFor 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? 

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

Ebola-cellWhen 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.”

Using-Genes-to-Fight-COVID-19
Originally printed in the Fall issue of the BRIng It On newsletter

Category: 
Fighting Diseases

September 29, 2020

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