Skip to main content


Protein Mapping Study Reveals Valuable Clues for COVID-19 Drug Development

Posted on by

One way to fight COVID-19 is with drugs that directly target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. That’s the strategy employed by remdesivir, the only antiviral drug currently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat COVID-19. Another promising strategy is drugs that target the proteins within human cells that the virus needs to infect, multiply, and spread.

With the aim of developing such protein-targeted antiviral drugs, a large, international team of researchers, funded in part by the NIH, has precisely and exhaustively mapped all of the interactions that take place between SARS-CoV-2 proteins and the human proteins found within infected host cells. They did the same for the related coronaviruses: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes the now-rare Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The goal, as reported in the journal Science, was to use these protein “interactomes” to uncover vulnerabilities shared by all three coronaviruses. The hope is that the newfound knowledge about these shared proteins—and the pathways to which they belong—will inform efforts to develop new kinds of broad-spectrum antiviral therapeutics for use in the current and future coronavirus outbreaks.

Facilitated by the Quantitative Biosciences Institute Research Group, the team, which included David E. Gordon and Nevan Krogan, University of California, San Francisco, and hundreds of other scientists from around the world, successfully mapped nearly 400 protein-protein interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and human proteins.

You can see one of these interactions in the video above. The video starts out with an image of the Orf9b protein of SARS-CoV-2, which normally consists of two linked molecules (blue and orange). But researchers discovered that Orf9b dissociates into a single molecule (orange) when it interacts with the human protein TOM70 (teal). Through detailed structural analysis using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), the team went on to predict that this interaction may disrupt a key interaction between TOM70 and another human protein called HSP90.

While further study is needed to understand all the details and their implications, it suggests that this interaction may alter important aspects of the human immune response, including blocking interferon signals that are crucial for sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness. While there is no drug immediately available to target Orf9b or TOM70, the findings point to this interaction as a potentially valuable target for treating COVID-19 and other diseases caused by coronaviruses.

This is just one intriguing example out of 389 interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and human proteins uncovered in the new study. The researchers also identified 366 interactions between human and SARS-CoV-1 proteins and 296 for MERS-CoV. They were especially interested in shared interactions that take place between certain human proteins and the corresponding proteins in all three coronaviruses.

To learn more about the significance of these protein-protein interactions, the researchers conducted a series of studies to find out how disrupting each of the human proteins influences SARS-CoV-2’s ability to infect human cells. These studies narrowed the list to 73 human proteins that the virus depends on to replicate.

Among them were the receptor for an inflammatory signaling molecule called IL-17, which has been suggested as an indicator of COVID-19 severity. Two other human proteins—PGES-2 and SIGMAR1—were of particular interest because they are targets of existing drugs, including the anti-inflammatory indomethacin for PGES-2 and antipsychotics like haloperidol for SIGMAR1.

To connect the molecular-level data to existing clinical information for people with COVID-19, the researchers looked to medical billing data for nearly 740,000 Americans treated for COVID-19. They then zeroed in on those individuals who also happened to have been treated with drugs targeting PGES-2 or SIGMAR1. And the results were quite striking.

They found that COVID-19 patients taking indomethacin were less likely than those taking an anti-inflammatory that doesn’t target PGES-2 to require treatment at a hospital. Similarly, COVID-19 patients taking antipsychotic drugs like haloperidol that target SIGMAR1 were half as likely as those taking other types of antipsychotic drugs to require mechanical ventilation.

More research is needed before we can think of testing these or similar drugs against COVID-19 in human clinical trials. Yet these findings provide a remarkable demonstration of how basic molecular and structural biological findings can be combined with clinical data to yield valuable new clues for treating COVID-19 and other viral illnesses, perhaps by repurposing existing drugs. Not only is NIH-supported basic science essential for addressing the challenges of the current pandemic, it is building a strong foundation of fundamental knowledge that will make us better prepared to deal with infectious disease threats in the future.


[1] Comparative host-coronavirus protein interaction networks reveal pan-viral disease mechanisms. Gordon DE et al. Science. 2020 Oct 15:eabe9403.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Krogan Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

COVID-19 Can Damage Hearts of Some College Athletes

Posted on by

American football Player
Credit: iStock/Serega

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the news lately about whether to pause or resume college athletics during the pandemic. One of the sticking points has been uncertainty about how to monitor the health of student athletes who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As a result, college medical staff don’t always know when to tell athletes that they’ve fully recovered and it’s safe to start training again.

The lack of evidence owes to two factors. Though it may not seem like it, this terrible coronavirus has been around for less than a year, and that’s provided little time to conduct the needed studies with young student athletes. But that’s starting to change. An interesting new study in the journal JAMA Cardiology provides valuable and rather worrisome early data from COVID-positive student athletes evaluated for an inflammation of the heart called myocarditis, a well-known complication [1].

Saurabh Rajpal and his colleagues at the Ohio State University, Columbus, used cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to visualize the hearts of 26 male and female student athletes. They participated in a range of sports, including football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and track. All of the athletes were referred to the university’s sports medicine clinic this past summer after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. All had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

Even so, the MRI scans, taken 11-53 days after completion of quarantine, showed four of the student athletes (all males) had swelling and tissue damage to their hearts consistent with myocarditis. Although myocarditis often resolves on its own over time, severe cases can compromise the heart muscle’s ability to beat. That can lead to heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, and even sudden death in competitive athletes with normal heart function [2].

The investigators also looked for more subtle findings of cardiac injury in these athletes, using a contrast agent called gadolinium and measuring its time to appear in the cardiac muscle during the study. Eight of the 26 athletes (31 percent) had late gadolinium enhancement, suggestive of prior myocardial injury.

Even though it’s a small study, these results certainly raise concerns. They add more evidence to a prior study, published by a German group, that suggested subtle cardiac consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection may be common in adults [3].

Rajpal and his colleagues will continue to follow the athletes in their study for several more months. The researchers will keep an eye out for other lingering symptoms of COVID-19, generate more cardiac MRI data, and perform exercise testing.

As this study shows, we still have a lot to learn about the long-term consequences of COVID-19, which can take people on different paths to recovery. For athletes, that path is the challenge to return to top physical shape and feel ready to compete at a high level. But getting back in uniform must also be done safely to minimize any risks to an athlete’s long-term health and wellbeing. The more science-based evidence that’s available, the more prepared athletes at large and small colleges will be to compete safely in this challenging time.


[1] Cardiovascular magnetic resonance findings in competitive athletes recovering from COVID-19 infection. Rajpal S, Tong MS, Borchers J, et al. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 September 11. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Eligibility and disqualification recommendations for competitive athletes with cardiovascular abnormalities: Task Force 3: Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy and other cardiomyopathies, and myocarditis. Maron BJ, Udelson JE, Bonow RO, et al. Circulation. 2015;132(22):e273-e280.

[3] Outcomes of cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging in patients recently recovered from Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Puntmann VO, Carej ML, Wieters I. JAMA Cardiol. 2020 Jul 27:e203557. [Published online ahead of print.]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Heart Inflammation (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Saurabh Rajpal (Ohio State College of Medicine, Columbus)

See the Human Cardiovascular System in a Whole New Way

Posted on by

Watch this brief video and you might guess you’re seeing an animated line drawing, gradually revealing a delicate take on a familiar system: the internal structures of the human body. But this movie doesn’t capture the work of a talented sketch artist. It was created using the first 3D, full-body imaging device using positron emission tomography (PET).

The device is called an EXPLORER (EXtreme Performance LOng axial REsearch scanneR) total-body PET scanner. By pairing this scanner with an advanced method for reconstructing images from vast quantities of data, the researchers can make movies.

For this movie in particular, the researchers injected small amounts of a short-lived radioactive tracer—an essential component of all PET scans—into the lower leg of a study volunteer. They then sat back as the scanner captured images of the tracer moving up the leg and into the body, where it enters the heart. The tracer moves through the heart’s right ventricle to the lungs, back through the left ventricle, and up to the brain. Keep watching, and, near the 30-second mark, you will see in closer focus a haunting capture of the beating heart.

This groundbreaking scanner was developed and tested by Jinyi Qi, Simon Cherry, Ramsey Badawi, and their colleagues at the University of California, Davis [1]. As the NIH-funded researchers reported recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their new scanner can capture dynamic changes in the body that take place in a tenth of a second [2]. That’s faster than the blink of an eye!

This movie is composed of frames captured at 0.1-second intervals. It highlights a feature that makes this scanner so unique: its ability to visualize the whole body at once. Other medical imaging methods, including MRI, CT, and traditional PET scans, can be used to capture beautiful images of the heart or the brain, for example. But they can’t show what’s happening in the heart and brain at the same time.

The ability to capture the dynamics of radioactive tracers in multiple organs at once opens a new window into human biology. For example, the EXPLORER system makes it possible to measure inflammation that occurs in many parts of the body after a heart attack, as well as to study interactions between the brain and gut in Parkinson’s disease and other disorders.

EXPLORER also offers other advantages. It’s extra sensitive, which enables it to capture images other scanners would miss—and with a lower dose of radiation. It’s also much faster than a regular PET scanner, making it especially useful for imaging wiggly kids. And it expands the realm of research possibilities for PET imaging studies. For instance, researchers might repeatedly image a person with arthritis over time to observe changes that may be related to treatments or exercise.

Currently, the UC Davis team is working with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco to use EXPLORER to enhance our understanding of HIV infection. Their preliminary findings show that the scanner makes it easier to capture where the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, is lurking in the body by picking up on signals too weak to be seen on traditional PET scans.

While the research potential for this scanner is clearly vast, it also holds promise for clinical use. In fact, a commercial version of the scanner, called uEXPLORER, has been approved by the FDA and is in use at UC Davis [3]. The researchers have found that its improved sensitivity makes it much easier to detect cancers in patients who are obese and, therefore, harder to image well using traditional PET scanners.

As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak subsides enough to allow clinical research to resume, the researchers say they’ll begin recruiting patients with cancer into a clinical study designed to compare traditional PET and EXPLORER scans directly.

As these researchers, and other researchers around the world, begin to put this new scanner to use, we can look forward to seeing many more remarkable movies like this one. Imagine what they will reveal!


[1] First human imaging studies with the EXPLORER total-body PET scanner. Badawi RD, Shi H, Hu P, Chen S, Xu T, Price PM, Ding Y, Spencer BA, Nardo L, Liu W, Bao J, Jones T, Li H, Cherry SR. J Nucl Med. 2019 Mar;60(3):299-303.

[2] Subsecond total-body imaging using ultrasensitive positron emission tomography. Zhang X, Cherry SR, Xie Z, Shi H, Badawi RD, Qi J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Feb 4;117(5):2265-2267.

[3] “United Imaging Healthcare uEXPLORER Total-body Scanner Cleared by FDA, Available in U.S. Early 2019.” Cision PR Newswire. January 22, 2019.


Positron Emission Tomography (PET) (NIH Clinical Center)

EXPLORER Total-Body PET Scanner (University of California, Davis)

Cherry Lab (UC Davis)

Badawi Lab (UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; Common Fund

A New View of the 3D Genome

Posted on by

Caption: 3D model of a chromatin “forest.” Each sphere represents a tree-shaped domain of about 10 nucleosomes, the basic structural unit of DNA packaging. Larger domains are green; smaller ones are red. Credit: Northwestern University, Evanston, IL


This lush panoply of color might stir up daydreams of getting away to explore a tropical rain forest. But what you see here is a new model that’s enabling researchers to explore something equally amazing: how a string of DNA that measures 6 feet long can be packed into the microscopic nucleus of a human cell. Fitting that much DNA in a nucleus is like fitting a thread the length of the Empire State building underneath your fingernail!

Scientists have known for a while that that the answer lies in how DNA is folded onto spool-like complexes called chromatin, but many details of the process still remain to be worked out. Recently, an NIH-funded team, led by Vadim Backman and Igal Szleifer, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, developed this new model of chromatin folding by pairing sophisticated mathematical modeling and optical imaging.In a study published in the journal Science Advances [1], the team found that chromatin is folded into a variety of tree-like domains along a chromatin backbone, which they liken to an aggregation of trees growing from the forest floor. The colorful spheres you see above represent trees of varying sizes.

Earlier models of chromatin folding had suggested that DNA folds into regular and orderly fibers. In the new study, the Northwestern researchers used their own specially designed Partial Wave Spectroscopic microscope. This high-powered system, coupled with electron imaging, allowed them to peer deep inside living cells to “sense” real-time alterations in chromatin packing. What makes their new view on chromatin so interesting is it suggests our DNA is packaged in a way that’s much more disorderly and unpredictable than initially thought.

Chromatin Forest
Caption: Schematic shows the interplay between transcription and chromatin packing. Inactive high DNA density (blue) regions and active low DNA density (red). The horizontal chromatin backbone includes RNA polymerase (green), activating factors (yellow), and repressing factors (purple). Credit: Huang et al., Sci. Adv. 2020

As Backman notes, it is reasonable to assume that a forest would be filled with trees of varying sizes and shapes. But you couldn’t predict the exact location of each tree or its particular size and configuration. The same appears to be true of these tree-like structures within chromatin. Their precise location and size vary, seemingly unpredictably, from cell to cell.

This apparently random DNA packing structure might seem surprising given chromatin’s importance in influencing the expression and function of our genes. But the researchers think such variability likely has its advantages.

Here’s the idea: If all of our cells responded to stressful conditions (such as heat or a toxic exposure) in exactly the same way and that way happened to be suboptimal, the whole tissue or organ might fail. But if differences in chromatin structure lead each cell to respond somewhat differently to the same stimulus, then some cells might be more likely to survive or even thrive under the stress. It’s a built-in way for cells to hedge their bets.

These new findings offer a fundamentally new three-dimensional view of the human genome. They might also inspire innovative strategies to understand and fight cancer, as well as other diseases. And, while most of us probably won’t be venturing off into the rain forest anytime soon, this work does give us all something to think about next time we’re enjoying the great outdoors in our own neck of the woods. 


[1] Physical and data structure of 3D genome. Huang K, Li Y, Shim AR, Virk RKA, Agrawal V, Eshein A, Nap RJ, Almassalha LM, Backman V, Szleifer I. Sci Adv. 2020 Jan 10;6(2):eaay4055.


Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

4D Nucleome (Common Fund/NIH)

Vadim Backman (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL)

Igal Szleifer (Northwestern University, Evanston, IL)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute

Seeing Coronavirus Replicate in Kidney Cells

Posted on by

Bernbaum Imaging Post
Credit: NIAID Integrated Research Facility, Fort Detrick, MD

You’ve probably seen pictures of SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—that look alarming. But the high-resolution micrograph above paints a rather different picture, using rich pseudo-colors to show how newly assembled viral particles cause infected cells to bulge, or bleb, and then self-destruct.

This image depicts a common primate kidney cell line (green) infected with SARS-CoV-2. Notice the bulging, spherical cellular blebs, seen best in the upper right and bottom left corners. These badly damaged cells, which are filled to the point of bursting with viral particles, are beginning to self-destruct. Some cells have apparently already burst open, allowing hundreds of viral particles (purple) to spill out and potentially infect other cells.

This stunning picture was taken by John Bernbaum, an electron microscopist with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Bernbaum works at NIAID’s Integrated Research Facility (IRF), Fort Detrick, MD, a specialized, high-level biocontainment facility equipped with unique medical imaging capabilities. In this special environment, Bernbaum and his colleagues can safely visualize SARS-CoV-2, as well as other viruses and microbes that pose serious risks to human health.

To get this shot of SARS-CoV-2, Bernbaum relied on a conventional scanning electron microscope (SEM). First, a sample of kidney cells that had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 was dehydrated, chemically preserved, and coated with a thin layer of metal. Once everything was ready, the SEM was used to focus a high-energy beam of electrons onto the sample. As electrons bounced off the metal surface, they revealed spatial variations and properties in the sample that were used to generate this 3D image.

Originally, this image was in gray scale. To better highlight the destructive powers of SARS-CoV-2, Jiro Wada, a skilled graphic illustrator at the IRF, used a computer program to colorize key features in exquisite detail. By studying these 3D images, researchers can learn about things such as the rate of infection and the prodigious number of particles each infected cell produces. They can also learn about how the infection affects the conditions inside cells.

Interestingly, what Bernbaum finds most striking about SARS-CoV-2 is what you don’t see in his images. Uninfected kidney cells look like a flat, delicately interwoven quilt (not pictured). When Bernbaum used SEM to study this sample of kidney cells, about 80 to 90 percent of the cells appeared flat and unremarkable. Yet, as the scan progressed, he came across a small subset of cells that appeared to be deformed by SARS-CoV-2 infection. Those abnormalities include the spherical bulges that I pointed out earlier, along with some worm-like protrusions that you can see in the top left.

Bernbaum has been producing amazing images like this one for 32 years—the last 11 of them at the IRF. If you’d like to see even more of his impressive work and that of the IRF team, check out the NIAID’s image gallery.


Coronavirus (NIH)

Integrated Research Facility (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Next Page