Story at a glance

  • The breakthrough could pave the way to the development of a vaccine or antiviral medicine.
  • The researchers designed the map weeks after receiving the genome sequence of the virus from scientists in China.
  • The novel coronavirus has left more than 2,000 people dead.

Researchers have produced a 3-D atomic scale map of the part of the coronavirus that attaches to and infects human cells, a step that may help in the development of a vaccine or antiviral medication. 

The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science. A team at the University of Texas at Austin collaborated with researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to map the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2. 

Researchers at Austin were already studying viruses in the coronavirus family and developing ways of mapping spike proteins, the part of the virus that attaches and infects human cells. Mapping the spike protein is an essential step so researchers around the world can develop vaccines and drugs to fight the virus.

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“As soon as we knew this was a coronavirus, we felt we had to jump at it,” Jason McLellan, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who led the research, said in a statement. “We knew exactly what mutations to put into this, because we’ve already shown these mutations work for a bunch of other coronaviruses.”

Researchers were able to design and produce samples of the spike protein within two weeks of receiving the genome sequence of the virus from researchers in China, and it took about another two weeks to reconstruct the 3-D atomic-scale map. 

The team of researchers plan to use the molecule they mapped to isolate antibodies produced by previously infected patients who have recovered from the virus, to potentially produce a treatment for people soon after they are exposed to the virus. 

The novel coronavirus has now killed more than 2,000 people, with all but six of them in mainland China. More than 75,000 have been infected, with more than 1,000 cases outside China. 

Published on Feb 19, 2020