Skip to main content

Alpha variant

‘Decoy’ Protein Works Against Multiple Coronavirus Variants in Early Study

Posted on by

Virus's spikes being covered with ACE2 decoys. ACE2 receptors on surface are empty

The NIH continues to support the development of some very innovative therapies to control SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. One innovative idea involves a molecular decoy to thwart the coronavirus.

How’s that? The decoy is a specially engineered protein particle that mimics the 3D structure of the ACE2 receptor, a protein on the surface of our cells that the virus’s spike proteins bind to as the first step in causing an infection.

The idea is when these ACE2 decoys are administered therapeutically, they will stick to the spike proteins that crown the coronavirus (see image above). With its spikes covered tightly in decoy, SARS-CoV-2 has a more-limited ability to attach to the real ACE2 and infect our cells.

Recently, the researchers published their initial results in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, and the early data look promising [1]. They found in mouse models of severe COVID-19 that intravenous infusion of an engineered ACE2 decoy prevented lung damage and death. Though more study is needed, the researchers say the decoy therapy could potentially be delivered directly to the lungs through an inhaler and used alone or in combination with other COVID-19 treatments.

The findings come from a research team at the University of Illinois Chicago team, led by Asrar Malik and Jalees Rehman, working in close collaboration with their colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The researchers had been intrigued by an earlier clinical trial testing the ACE2 decoy strategy [2]. However, in this earlier attempt, the clinical trial found no reduction in mortality. The ACE2 drug candidate, which is soluble and degrades in the body, also proved ineffective in neutralizing the virus.

Rather than give up on the idea, the UIC team decided to give it a try. They engineered a new soluble version of ACE2 that structurally might work better as a decoy than the original one. Their version of ACE2, which includes three changes in the protein’s amino acid building blocks, binds the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein much more tightly. In the lab, it also appeared to neutralize the virus as well as monoclonal antibodies used to treat COVID-19.

To put it to the test, they conducted studies in mice. Normal mice don’t get sick from SARS-CoV-2 because the viral spike can’t bind well to the mouse version of the ACE2 receptor. So, the researchers did their studies in a mouse that carries the human ACE2 and develops a severe acute respiratory syndrome somewhat similar to that seen in humans with severe COVID-19.

In their studies, using both the original viral isolate from Washington State and the Gamma variant (P.1) first detected in Brazil, they found that infected mice infused with their therapeutic ACE2 protein had much lower mortality and showed few signs of severe acute respiratory syndrome. While the protein worked against both versions of the virus, infection with the more aggressive Gamma variant required earlier treatment. The treated mice also regained their appetite and weight, suggesting that they were making a recovery.

Further studies showed that the decoy bound to spike proteins from every variant tested, including Alpha, Beta, Delta and Epsilon. (Omicron wasn’t yet available at the time of the study.) In fact, the decoy bound just as well, if not better, to new variants compared to the original virus.

The researchers will continue their preclinical work. If all goes well, they hope to move their ACE2 decoy into a clinical trial. What’s especially promising about this approach is it could be used in combination with treatments that work in other ways, such as by preventing virus that’s already infected cells from growing or limiting an excessive and damaging immune response to the infection.

Last week, more than 17,500 people in the United States were hospitalized with severe COVID-19. We’ve got to continue to do all we can to save lives, and it will take lots of innovative ideas, like this ACE2 decoy, to put us in a better position to beat this virus once and for all.


[1] Engineered ACE2 decoy mitigates lung injury and death induced by SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Zhang L, Dutta S, Xiong S, Chan M, Chan KK, Fan TM, Bailey KL, Lindeblad M, Cooper LM, Rong L, Gugliuzza AF, Shukla D, Procko E, Rehman J, Malik AB. Nat Chem Biol. 2022 Jan 19.

[2] Recombinant human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (rhACE2) as a treatment for patients with COVID-19 (APN01-COVID-19).


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (NIH)

Asrar Malik (University of Illinois Chicago)

Jalees Rehman (University of Illinois Chicago)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

How One Change to The Coronavirus Spike Influences Infectivity

Posted on by

electron micrograph of COVID-19 viruses
Caption: Spike proteins (blue) crown SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Once the virus enters humans, the spike protein is decorated with sugars that attach to some of its amino acids, forming O-glycans. Loss of key O-glycans may facilitate viral spread to human cells. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Since joining NIH, I’ve held a number of different leadership positions. But there is one position that thankfully has remained constant for me: lab chief. I run my own research laboratory at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

My lab studies a biochemical process called O-glycosylation. It’s fundamental to life and fascinating to study. Our cells are often adorned with a variety of carbohydrate sugars. O-glycosylation refers to the biochemical process through which these sugar molecules, either found at the cell surface or secreted, get added to proteins. The presence or absence of these sugars on certain proteins plays fundamental roles in normal tissue development and first-line human immunity. It also is associated with various diseases, including cancer.

Our lab recently joined a team of NIH scientists led by my NIDCR colleague Kelly Ten Hagen to demonstrate how O-glycosylation can influence SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and its ability to fuse to cells, which is a key step in infecting them. In fact, our data, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that some variants, seem to have mutated to exploit the process to their advantage [1].

The work builds on the virus’s reliance on the spike proteins that crown its outer surface to attach to human cells. Once there, the spike protein must be activated to fuse and launch an infection. That happens when enzymes produced by our own cells make a series of cuts, or cleavages, to the spike protein.

The first cut comes from an enzyme called furin. We and others had earlier evidence that O-glycosylation can affect the way furin makes those cuts. That got us thinking: Could O-glycosylation influence the interaction between furin and the spike protein? The furin cleavage area of the viral spike was indeed adorned with sugars, and their presence or absence might influence spike activation by furin.

We also noticed the Alpha and Delta variants carry a mutation that removes the amino acid proline in a specific spot. That was intriguing because we knew from earlier work that enzymes called GALNTs, which are responsible for adding bulky sugar molecules to proteins, prefer prolines near O-glycosylation sites.

It also suggested that loss of proline in the new variants could mean decreased O-glycosylation, which might then influence the degree of furin cleavage and SARS-CoV-2’s ability to enter cells. I should note that the recent Omicron variant was not examined in the current study.

After detailed studies in fruit fly and mammalian cells, we demonstrated in the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that O-glycosylation of the spike protein decreases furin cleavage. Further experiments then showed that the GALNT1 enzyme adds sugars to the spike protein and this addition limits the ability of furin to make the needed cuts and activate the spike protein.

Importantly, the spike protein change found in the Alpha and Delta variants lowers GALNT1 activity, making it easier for furin to start its activating cuts. It suggests that glycosylation of the viral spike by GALNT1 may limit infection with the original virus, and that the Alpha and Delta variant mutation at least partially overcomes this effect, to potentially make the virus more infectious.

Building on these studies, our teams looked for evidence of GALNT1 in the respiratory tracts of healthy human volunteers. We found that the enzyme is indeed abundantly expressed in those cells. Interestingly, those same cells also express the ACE2 receptor, which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.

It’s also worth noting here that the Omicron variant carries the very same spike mutation that we studied in Alpha and Delta. Omicron also has another nearby change that might further alter O-glycosylation and cleavage of the spike protein by furin. The Ten Hagen lab is looking into these leads to learn how this region in Omicron affects spike glycosylation and, ultimately, the ability of this devastating virus to infect human cells and spread.


[1] Furin cleavage of the SARS-CoV-2 spike is modulated by O-glycosylation. Zhang L, Mann M, Syed Z, Reynolds HM, Tian E, Samara NL, Zeldin DC, Tabak LA, Ten Hagen KG. PNAS. 2021 Nov 23;118(47).


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Kelly Ten Hagen (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Lawrence Tabak (NIDCR)

NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research