Coronavirus update: Argonne scientists part of team mapping COVID-19 protein for future treatments

LEMONT, Ill. (WLS) -- Scientists, including researchers from Illinois, at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have found a protein in coronavirus very similar to one from a previous outbreak, which could potentially help speed up the process in developing COVID-19 treatment.

Behind the thick secured door at the laboratory is high tech equipment being used to research the coronavirus. A COVID-19 protein is being analyzed using a piece of equipment called an X-Ray Beam Line.

"It's an extremely high atomic resolution microscope, it's not one you can see visually, we have computers to recreate the images we want to see," said Bob Fischetti, Argonne Lab's Advanced Photon Source.

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The structure of the COVID-19 protein is being analyzed by a team, including scientists from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, studying infectious diseases for the National Institutes of Health. They have discovered the protein is nearly is nearly identical to one in Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which had an outbreak in 2003.

"This one is 89 percent at the sequence level and structurally very similar, we need to do more analysis to see how small differences can translate into behavior," said University of Chicago researcher Karolina Mischalska.

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Because the protein is so similar to the one in SARS, it can potentially provide a road map for drug companies to develop a treatment for the coronavirus.

"All those drugs that were developed for SARS could potentially be redeployed, re understood and redeveloped against this new virus, so what we need to do is pick up where previous groups left off and expedite that into new drugs," said Karla Satchel, research for Northwestern University Medicine.

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Meanwhile, researchers at Argonne lab and around the world continue to analyze all the COVID-19 proteins at an urgent pace, hoping to understand their molecular make-up to stop the virus from replicating.

"We have competition which is good because that may produce the structures faster," Mischalska said.

Despite the discovery of the similar SARS protein and the urgency among researchers to find more information, scientists said they are at the earliest stages of the first step in the process. The development of a drug is realistically 18 to 24 months from now.

The Illinois Department of Public Health as created a hotline at 1-800-889-3931. More information can be found at the IDPH website and the Chicago Department of Public Health website.
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