Story at a glance

  • Researchers are still learning about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the pandemic.
  • In a new study, experts have identified additional proteins that could be targeted by future coronavirus vaccines.
  • Some of these proteins trigger T cells, which act as killer cells by attacking infected cells.

Researchers based at Boston institutions are investigating how future coronavirus vaccines could target different immune cells. Current vaccines target B cells, which help fight off infection by creating antibodies. The group from Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL)and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are instead hoping to target T cells, which are killer cells sent around the body by the immune system to kill infected cells.

In their paper published in Cell, the team reports how they experimented with coronavirus-infected human cells. They isolated and identified some SARS-CoV-2 proteins at one of the NEIDL's Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) labs.

"This was a big undertaking because many research techniques are difficult to adapt for high containment levels [such as BSL-3]," said Mohsan Saeed, a NEIDL virologist and the co-corresponding author of the paper, in a press release. "The overall coronavirus research pipeline we've created at the NEIDL, and the support of our entire NEIDL team, has helped us along the way."

The researchers identified 23 proteins in the virus previously unknown to scientists and estimate that 25 percent of these trigger the immune system to attack the virus.

"It's quite remarkable that such a strong immune signature of the virus is coming from regions [of the virus' genetic sequence] that we were blind to," said Shira Weingarten-Gabby, the paper's lead author in the press release.


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The authors think that their work can help inform development of new coronavirus vaccines. “Our discovery ... can assist in the development of new vaccines that will mimic more accurately the response of our immune system to the virus,” Sabeti said.

The immune response to an infection ideally activates both B cells and T cells so that infected cells can be targeted while other immune cells produce antibodies that can attach to the pathogen. This new knowledge could bring in a new wave of vaccines that can produce a more complex immune response.

"This is a striking reminder that curiosity-driven research stands at the basis of discoveries that can transform the development of vaccines and therapies," Weingarten-Gabby said. 


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Published on Jun 23, 2021