Bristol researchers find a potential cause explaining the infectivity of COVID-19


By Edward Deacon, SciTech Digital Editor

A potential cause of what makes the coronavirus highly infectious – namely, the ability of the virus to bind to a specific protein found on the surface of human cells – has been identified by a team of scientists led by the University of Bristol.

The ground-breaking study published in Nature describes the virus’ acute ability to infect human cells can be reduced by inhibitors that block an interaction between the virus and a host’s cells, indicating a potential treatment for the virus.

Research groups from the University’s Faculty of Life Sciences led by Professor Peter Cullen, Associate Professor and virologist Dr Yohei Yamauchi and Dr Boris Simonetti found that the SARS-CoV-2 recognises neuropilin-1, a protein found on the surface of human cells, and is able to bind to it, thus enabling viral infection.

SARS-CoV-2 is the highly infective and transmissive strain of coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The virus infects humans by binding to human cells that line the respiratory or intestinal tracts, then, once attached, it invades the cell and creates multiple copies of itself.

This interaction between the virus and human cells is performed by a specific viral protein – the ‘Spike’ protein. Dr Yamauchi, Dr Simonetti and Prof Cullen explain that ‘by using lab-created proteins that resemble naturally occurring antibodies, or a selective drug that blocks the interaction, we have been able to reduce SARS-CoV-2’s ability to infect human cells.’

The video explains the infectivity of SARS-CoV-19 | University of Bristol

These findings have been supported by independent studies at the Technical University of Munich and the University of Helsinki, that found neuropilin-1 facilitates the virus’ entry and infection of human cells.

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The Bristol researchers concluded that overcoming COVID-19 will ‘rely on an effective vaccine and an arsenal of anti-viral therapeutics,’ for which this discovery creates ‘a previously unrecognised avenue for therapies.’

In general, understanding how the Spike protein identifies human cells is critical to the development of antiviral therapies and vaccines for COVID-19, and this study ‘serves to highlight the potential therapeutic value of our discovery in the fight against COVID-19,’ Professor Cullen, Associate Professor Yamauchi and Dr Simonetti added.

Featured Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention / Unsplash

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Edward Deacon

SciTech Digital Editor 2020-21 | 4th year Physics