Scientists hope small molecule anti-viral drugs could be used against Covid

Scientists believe they may have discovered a new way to try and combat Covid-19 virus.

An international team from Bristol University believe that small molecule anti-viral drugs could be developed to help stop the virus from infecting human cells.

Sars-CoV-2 is the virus which causes Covid-19.

The scientists have found a “druggable” pocket within a Sars-CoV-2 spike protein which they hope could lead to new anti-viral drugs to shut down and eliminate the virus before it enters human cells.

They describe the findings, published in the Science journal, as a potential “game changer” in defeating the current pandemic.

Spike proteins, which are on the surface of the virus, are a key element for infections of the human cells.

The researchers found a small molecule, linoleic acid (LA), buried in a tailor-made pocket within the spike protein.

Linoleic acid (LA) is a free fatty acid, which is needed for many cellular functions and cannot be produced by the human body.

LA plays a vital role in inflammation and immunity levels, and it is also needed to maintain cell membranes in the lungs to help people breathe properly.

Professor Imre Berger said: “Our discovery provides the first direct link between LA, Covid-19 pathological manifestations and the virus itself.

“The question now is how to turn this new knowledge against the virus itself and defeat the pandemic.”

The team used a powerful imaging technique, called an electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM), to analyse the Sars-CoV-2 spike.

A 3D structure of the Sars CoV-2 spike protein was generated allowing the researchers to peer deep inside the spike and identify its molecular composition.

The researchers spotted LA in a pocket within the spike protein.

Prof Berger described the research team as “truly puzzled” by the discovery and its implications.

Prof Berger said: “So here we have LA, a molecule which is at the centre of those functions that go haywire in Covid-19 patients, with terrible consequences.

“And the virus that is causing all this chaos, according to our data, grabs and holds on to exactly this molecule – basically disarming much of the body’s defences.”

The team have found hope from previous studies on the rhinovirus, which is a virus that causes the common cold.

They said that a similar pocket was exploited to develop potent small molecules which were successfully used as anti-viral drugs in human trials in a clinic.

The Bristol team hopes that a similar strategy can now be used to develop small molecule anti-viral drugs against Sars-CoV-2.