York Scientists Provide Covid-19 Protein In Development of Antibody Tests

The University of York has reported a new protein which stores and protects the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19. This may lay the groundwork for possible antiviral therapies for Covid-19.

The news came yesterday that a research team from the York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL) have purified the virus’s nucleocapsid protein and begun characterising it. This is the most abundant viral protein, which safeguards its genetic material and is known as RNA.

Collaborating with the University of Leeds’ cryo-electron microscopy laboratory, attempts are being made to determine an accurate three-dimensional structure of the protein, to inform mechanistic understanding and drug development.

Furthermore, the scientists have provided the protein, and the system they use to make it, to other labs, at Sheffield, Oxford, and London, to assist in development of antibody tests for Covid-19.

The nucleocapsid protein produces a strong antibody response in infected people, making it an important component in testing procedures.

The association between the viral genome and the nucleocapsid protein represents an essential stage in the virus life cycle, which could be targeted by antiviral drugs.

Professor Fred Antson, a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow, leads the research team specialising in the use of cryo-Electron Microscopy and X-ray crystallography to image viral proteins and whole virus particles to understand how they assemble.

PhD student Dorothy Hawkins, who is involved with the study, explained that producing a 3D image of this protein was crucial in understanding the virus.

“Because it is such a new virus we don’t have any specific information about any of its proteins.

“We are trying to get the 3D structure of both the genetic material and this protein which protects it.

“If we can get a detailed 3D structure this should be really informative for designing drugs which could stop the association between them.”

As the true scale of disruption from the current pandemic became apparent, the team quickly switched their research focus to SARS-CoV-2. In many biology laboratories around the world, the Covid-19 is now the only task at hand.

Dorothy added: “The scientific community has really gathered around. Hopefully the more we understand, the more we can aim to disrupt the virus.

“Everyone in different labs is really up for collaboration, all competition has been dropped. I think progress has been really fast because everyone has been sharing things as soon as they could. It is a really exciting project.”

The team, working with supervision from Fred Antson (Professor, Department of Chemistry), are Oliver Bayfield (Postdoctoral researcher), Dorothy Hawkins (3rd year PhD) and De-Sheng Ker (2nd year PhD).

Photo: Scientists at the YSBL providing data to other labs across the country. Courtesy of The University of York.