UCC scientists contribute to breakthrough in virus fight

Researchers collaborated with a Swiss lab to identify a weakness in a mechanism on which the virus depends to reproduce
UCC scientists contribute to breakthrough in virus fight

The UCC team, led by John Atkins, worked with the ETH Institute in Zurich on the project.

University College Cork scientists have contributed to an exciting discovery which offers a ray of hope for future inhibition of the Covid-causative virus, including Covid-19.

The team, led by John Atkins, worked with the ETH Institute in Zurich to identify a weakness in a mechanism on which the virus depends to reproduce.

This is something that pharmaceutical companies could potentially exploit to create a pill or other medication to halt the virus, hopes Prof Atkins.

“I’ve been working on this phenomenon for a number of decades,” he said, referring to his work on the mechanism at Trinity College, in the US, and for over 21 years in UCC. 

“It is satisfying to get such structural information which I thought wouldn’t happen in my lifetime, let alone that I would be involved in it.” 

Genetic code

Their discovery centres on what Prof Atkins agreed a lay person might term a typo in the genetic code of coronavirus.

This is called frameshifting; a three-letter code shifts back so, effectively, two letters are read as a word before the three-letter code resumes in a different reading frame.

“The frameshifting event causes the usually dynamic ribosome machine to adopt a strained conformation, which helped provide one of the sharpest and most accurate images of a mammalian ribosome,” said UCC in a statement confirming the discovery.

Work on the topic was regarded as a niche activity in the scientific world so Prof Atkins is thrilled to see their years of quiet work paying off now.

“What has been discovered in part is the structure of the protein synthetic machinery relevant to the exceptional mechanism which occurs at just one position in the readout of the virus’ genetic information,” he said. 

UCC PhD student Pramod Bhatt was already working in the Zurich laboratory as part of the international collaboration when the pandemic hit last year.

“He was doing research on his own project when Covid-19 hit. The head of the lab there immediately wanted to switch the whole lab over to this Covid-causative virus,” said Prof Atkins.

“Pramod had just the right skill set at the time that the pandemic hit.” 

The vital magnifying machinery which Mr Bhatt and their Swiss collaborators used costs over €10,000 a day to run, said Prof Atkins.

But, as he put it, the scientific input from UCC more than “pulled its weight” in the partnership.

He also praised senior scientist Gary Loughran and first-year PhD student Kate O’Connor who were key to the success of the Cork arm of the project.

Pharmaceutical companies

Prof Atkins said future use of their discovery depends on the pharmaceutical companies.

“The compound studied paves the way for the development of better compounds,” he said. 

“The ideal would be a cocktail of compounds active against distinct and unique vital virus lifecycle targets.” 

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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