Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As this long year enters its final month, there is good reason to look ahead to 2021 with optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic will finally be contained. The Food and Drug Administration is now reviewing the clinical trial data of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ensure their safety and efficacy. If all goes well, emergency use authorization could come very soon, allowing immunizations to begin.
Work also continues on developing better therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Though we’ve learned a great deal about this coronavirus in a short time, structural biologists continue to produce more detailed images that reveal more precisely where and how to target SARS-CoV-2. This research often involves neutralizing antibodies that circulate in the blood of most people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. The study of such antibodies and how they interact with SARS-CoV-2 offers critical biological clues into how to treat and prevent COVID-19.
A recent study in the journal Nature brings more progress, providing the most in-depth analysis yet of how human neutralizing antibodies physically grip SARS-CoV-2 to block it from binding to our cells . To conduct this analysis, a team of NIH-supported structural biologists, led by postdoc Christopher Barnes and Pamela Björkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, used the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to capture complex molecular interactions at near-atomic scale.
People infected with SARS-CoV-2 (or any foreign substance, for that matter) generate thousands of different versions of attack antibodies. Some of these antibodies are very good at sticking to the coronavirus, while others attach only loosely. Barnes used cryo-EM to capture highly intricate pictures of eight different human neutralizing antibodies bound tightly to SARS-CoV-2. Each of these antibodies, which had been isolated from patients a few weeks after they developed symptoms of COVID-19, had been shown in lab tests to be highly effective at blocking infection.
The researchers mapped all physical interactions between several human neutralizing antibodies and SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein that stud its surface. The virus uses these spiky extensions to infect a human cell by grabbing on to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. The molecular encounter between the coronavirus and ACE2 takes place via one or more of a trio of three protein domains, called receptor-binding domains (RBDs), that jut out from its spikes. RBDs flap up and down in the fluid surrounding cells, “reaching up” to touch and enter, or “laying down” to hide from an infected person’s antibodies and immune cells. Only an “up” RBD can attach to ACE2 and get into a cell.
Taken together with other structural information known about SARS-CoV-2, Barnes’ cryo-EM snapshots revealed four different types of shapes, or classes, of antibody-spike combinations. These high-resolution molecular views show that human neutralizing antibodies interact in many different ways with SARS-CoV-2: blocking access to either one or more RBDs in their “up” or “down” positions.
These results tell us a number of things, including underscoring why strategies that combine multiple types of antibodies in an “antibody cocktail” might likely offer broader protection against infection than using just a single type of antibody. Indeed, that approach is currently being tested in patients with COVID-19.
The findings also provide a molecular guide for custom-designing synthetic antibodies in the lab to foil SARS-CoV-2. As one example, Barnes and his team observed that one antibody completely locked all three RBDs into closed (“down”) positions. As you might imagine, scientists might want to copy that antibody type when designing an antibody-based drug or vaccine.
It is tragic that hundreds of thousands of people have died from this terrible new disease. Yet the immune system helps most to recover. Learning as much as we possibly can from those individuals who’ve been infected and returned to health should help us understand how to heal others who develop COVID-19, as well as inform precision design of additional vaccines that are molecularly targeted to this new foe.
While we look forward to the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and their broad distribution in 2021, each of us needs to remember to practice the three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often. In parallel with everyone adopting these critical public health measures, the scientific community is working harder than ever to meet this moment, doing everything possible to develop safe and effective ways of treating and preventing COVID-19.
 SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibody structures inform therapeutic strategies. Barnes CO, Jette CA, Abernathy ME, et al. Nature. 2020 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print].
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
Freezing a Moment in Time: Snapshots of Cryo-EM Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
Björkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
These round, multi-colored orbs in the illustration above may resemble SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. But they’re actually lab-made nanocrystals called quantum dots. They have been specially engineered to look and, in some ways, act like the coronavirus while helping to solve a real challenge for many labs that would like to study SARS-CoV-2.
Quantum dots, which have been around since the mid-1980s, are designed with special optical properties that allow them to fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. The two pictured here are about 10 nanometers in diameter, about 3,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The quantum dot consists of a semi-conductive cadmium selenide inner core (orange) surrounded by a zinc sulfide outer shell (teal). Molecules on its surface (yellow) allow researchers to attach the viral spike protein (purple), which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.
To the left is a human cell (gray) studded with the ACE2 receptors (blue) that those viral spike proteins bind to before SARS-CoV-2 enters and infects our cells. In the background, you see another spike protein-studded quantum dot. But human neutralizing antibodies (pink) are preventing that one from reaching the human cell.
Because SARS-CoV-2 is so highly infectious, basic researchers without access to specially designed biosafety facilities may be limited in their ability to study the virus. But these harmless quantum dots offer a safe workaround. While the quantum dots may bind and enter human cells just like the virus, they can’t cause an infection. They offer a quick, informative way to assess the potential of antibodies or other compounds to prevent the coronavirus from binding to our cells.
In work published in the journal ACS Nano, a team that included Kirill Gorshkov, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Rockville, MD, along with Eunkeu Oh and Mason Wolak, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., demonstrated how these quantum dots may serve as a useful new tool to speed the search for new COVID-19 treatments. The dots’ fluorescent glow enabled the researchers to use a microscope to observe how these viral mimics bind to ACE2 in real time, showing how SARS-CoV-2 might attach to and enter our cells, and suggesting ways to intervene.
Indeed, imagine thousands of tiny wells in which human cells are growing. Imagine adding a different candidate drug to each well; then imagine adding the loaded quantum dots to each well and using machine vision to identify the wells where the dots could not enter the cell. That’s not science fiction. That’s now.
With slightly different versions of their quantum dots, the NCATS researchers and their colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory will now explore how other viral proteins are important for the coronavirus to infect our cells. They also can test how slight variations in the spike protein may influence SARS-CoV-2’s behavior. This work provides yet another stunning example of how scientists with widely varying expertise have banded together—using all the tools at their disposal—to forge ahead to find solutions to COVID-19.
 Quantum dot-conjugated SARS-CoV-2 spike pseudo-virions enable tracking of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 binding and endocytosis. Gorshkov K, Susumu K, Chen J, Xu M, Pradhan M, Zhu W, Hu X, Breger JC, Wolak M, Oh E. ACS Nano. 2020 Sep 22;14(9):12234-12247.
What are Quantum Dots? (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
I Am Translational Science: Kirill Gorshkov (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
U. S. Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, D.C.)
NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences