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structural biology

Antibody Points to Possible Weak Spot on Novel Coronavirus

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Credit: Meng Yuan and Nicholas Wu, Wilson Lab, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

Researchers are working hard to produce precise, 3D molecular maps to guide the development of safe, effective ways of combating the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. While there’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the promise of antibody-based tests and treatments, this map you see above highlights another important use of antibodies: to inform efforts to design a vaccine.

This image shows the crystal structure of a human antibody (heavy chain in orange, light chain in yellow), which is a blood protein our immune systems produce to attack viruses and other foreign invaders. This particular antibody, called CR3022, is bound to a key surface protein of the novel coronavirus (white).

The CR3022 antibody actually doesn’t come from someone who has recovered from COVID-19. Instead, it was obtained from a person who, nearly two decades ago, survived a bout of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The SARS virus, which disappeared in 2004 after a brief outbreak in humans, is closely related to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

In a recent paper in the journal Science, the NIH-funded lab of Ian Wilson, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, along with colleagues at The University of Hong Kong, sought to understand how the human immune system interacts with and neutralizes this highly infectious virus [1]. The lab did so by employing high-resolution X-ray crystallography tools [2]. They captured the atomic structure of this antibody bound to its target by shooting X-rays through its crystallized form. (An antibody measures about 10 nanometers; a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.)

Other researchers had shown previously that CR3022 cross-reacts with the novel coronavirus, although the antibody doesn’t bind tightly enough to neutralize and stop it from infecting cells. So, Wilson’s team went to work to learn precisely where the antibody attaches to the novel virus. Those sites are of special interest because they highlight spots on a virus that are vulnerable to attack—and, as such, potentially good targets for vaccine designers.

A key finding in the new paper is that the antibody binds a highly similar site on both the SARS and novel coronaviruses. Those sites differ in each virus by just four amino acids, the building blocks of a protein.

This is particularly interesting because the antibody pictured above is bound to a spike protein, which is the appendage on both the SARS and novel coronavirus that enables them to bind to a key receptor protein on the surface of human cells, called ACE2. This binding activity marks the first step for these viruses in gaining entry into human cells and infecting them.

The human antibody shown in this image locks onto the virus’s spike protein at a different location than where the human ACE2 protein binds to the novel coronavirus. Intriguingly, the antibody binds to a spot on the novel coronavirus that is usually hidden, except for when virus shapeshifts its structure in order to infect a cell.

The findings suggest that a successful vaccine may be one that elicits antibodies that targets this same spot, but binds more tightly than the one seen above, thereby protecting human cells against the virus that causes COVID-19. However, Wilson notes that this study has just uncovered one potential vulnerability of the novel coronavirus, and it is likely the virus likely has many more that could be revealed with further study.

To continue in this quest to design a safe and effective vaccine, Wilson and his colleagues are now gathering blood samples to collect antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. So, we can look forward to seeing some even more revealing images soon.


[1] A highly conserved cryptic epitope in the receptor-binding domains of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV. Yuan M, Wu NC, Zhu X, Lee CD, So RTY, Lv H, Mok CKP, Wilson IA. Science. 2020 Apr 3.

[2] 100 Years Later: Celebrating the Contributions of X-ray Crystallography to Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Pomés A, Chruszcz M, Gustchina A, Minor W, Mueller GA, Pedersen LC, Wlodawer A, Chapman MD. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2015 Jul;136(1):29-37.


Coronaviruses (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Ian Wilson (The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Bringing Needed Structure to COVID-19 Drug Development

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SARS-Cov-2 Molecular Map
Caption: Molecular map showing interaction between the spike protein (gold) of the novel coronavirus and the peptidase domain (blue) of human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Credit: Adapted from Yan R., Science, 2020.

With so much information swirling around these days about the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, it would be easy to miss one of the most interesting and significant basic science reports of the past few weeks. It’s a paper published in the journal Science [1] that presents an atomic-scale snapshot showing the 3D structure of the spike protein on the novel coronavirus attached to a human cell surface protein called ACE2, or angiotensin converting enzyme 2. ACE2 is the receptor that the virus uses to gain entry.

What makes this image such a big deal is that it shows—in exquisite detail—how the coronavirus attaches to human cells before infecting them and making people sick. The structural map of this interaction will help guide drug developers, atom by atom, in devising safe and effective ways to treat COVID-19.

This new work, conducted by a team led by Qiang Zhou, Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, Hangzhou, China, took advantage of a high-resolution imaging tool called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). This approach involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. When all goes well, cryo-EM can solve the structure of intricate macromolecular complexes in a matter of days, including this one showing the interaction between a viral protein and human protein.

Zhou’s team began by mapping the structure of human ACE2 in a complex with B0AT1, which is a membrane protein that it helps to fold. In the context of this complex, ACE2 is a dimer—a scientific term for a compound composed of two very similar units. Additional mapping revealed how the surface protein of the novel coronavirus interacts with ACE2, indicating how the virus’s two trimeric (3-unit) spike proteins might bind to an ACE2 dimer. After confirmation by further research, these maps may well provide a basis for the design and development of therapeutics that specifically target this critical interaction.

The ACE2 protein resides on the surface of cells in many parts of the human body, including the heart and lungs. The protein is known to play a prominent role in the body’s complex system of regulating blood pressure. In fact, a class of drugs that inhibit ACE and related proteins are frequently prescribed to help control high blood pressure, or hypertension. These ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure by causing blood vessels to relax.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many people have wondered whether taking ACE inhibitors would be helpful or detrimental against coronavirus infection. This is of particular concern to doctors whose patients are already taking the medications to control hypertension. Indeed, data from China and elsewhere indicate hypertension is one of several coexisting conditions that have consistently been reported to be more common among people with COVID-19 who develop life-threatening severe acute respiratory syndrome.

In a new report in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, a team of U.K. and U.S. researchers, partly supported by NIH, examined the use of ACE inhibitors and other angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs) in people with COVID-19. The team, led by Scott D. Solomon of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, found that current evidence in humans is insufficient to support or refute claims that ACE inhibitors or ARBs may be helpful or harmful to individuals with COVID-19.

The researchers concluded that these anti-hypertensive drugs should be continued in people who have or at-risk for COVID-19, stating: “Although additional data may further inform the treatment of high-risk patients … clinicians need to be cognizant of the unintended consequences of prematurely discontinuing proven therapies in response to hypothetical concerns.” [2]

Research is underway to generate needed data on the use of ACE inhibitors and similar drugs in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to understand more about the basic mechanisms underlying this rapidly spreading viral disease. This kind of fundamental research isn’t necessarily the stuff that will make headlines, but it likely will prove vital to guiding the design of effective drugs that can help bring this serious global health crisis under control.


[1] Structural basis for the recognition of the SARS-CoV-2 by full-length human ACE2. Yan R, Zhang Y, Li Y, Xia L, Guo Y, Zhou Q. Science. 27 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] Renin–Angiotensin–Aldosterone System Inhibitors in Patients with Covid-19. Vaduganathan M, Vardeny O, Michel T, McMurray J, Pfeffer MA, Solomon SD. 30 NEJM. March 2020 [Epub ahead of Publication]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Transformative High Resolution Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Common Fund/NIH)

Qiang Zhou (Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, Zhejiang Province)

Scott D. Solomon (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Structural Biology Points Way to Coronavirus Vaccine

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Spike Protein on Novel Coronavirus
Caption: Atomic-level structure of the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin

The recent COVID-19 outbreak of a novel type of coronavirus that began in China has prompted a massive global effort to contain and slow its spread. Despite those efforts, over the last month the virus has begun circulating outside of China in multiple countries and territories.

Cases have now appeared in the United States involving some affected individuals who haven’t traveled recently outside the country. They also have had no known contact with others who have recently arrived from China or other countries where the virus is spreading. The NIH and other U.S. public health agencies stand on high alert and have mobilized needed resources to help not only in its containment, but in the development of life-saving interventions.

On the treatment and prevention front, some encouraging news was recently reported. In record time, an NIH-funded team of researchers has created the first atomic-scale map of a promising protein target for vaccine development [1]. This is the so-called spike protein on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As shown above, a portion of this spiky surface appendage (green) allows the virus to bind a receptor on human cells, causing other portions of the spike to fuse the viral and human cell membranes. This process is needed for the virus to gain entry into cells and infect them.

Preclinical studies in mice of a candidate vaccine based on this spike protein are already underway at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An early-stage phase I clinical trial of this vaccine in people is expected to begin within weeks. But there will be many more steps after that to test safety and efficacy, and then to scale up to produce millions of doses. Even though this timetable will potentially break all previous speed records, a safe and effective vaccine will take at least another year to be ready for widespread deployment.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including some that cause “the common cold” in healthy humans. In fact, these viruses are found throughout the world and account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults.

This outbreak of COVID-19 marks the third time in recent years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause severe disease and death in some people. Earlier coronavirus outbreaks included SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared two years later, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and continues to affect people in small numbers.

Soon after COVID-19 emerged, the new coronavirus, which is closely related to SARS, was recognized as its cause. NIH-funded researchers including Jason McLellan, an alumnus of the VRC and now at The University of Texas at Austin, were ready. They’d been studying coronaviruses in collaboration with NIAID investigators for years, with special attention to the spike proteins.

Just two weeks after Chinese scientists reported the first genome sequence of the virus [2], McLellan and his colleagues designed and produced samples of its spike protein. Importantly, his team had earlier developed a method to lock coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that makes them both easier to analyze structurally via the high-resolution imaging tool cryo-electron microscopy and to use in vaccine development efforts.

After locking the spike protein in the shape it takes before fusing with a human cell to infect it, the researchers reconstructed its atomic-scale 3D structural map in just 12 days. Their results, published in Science, confirm that the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19 is quite similar to that of its close relative, the SARS virus. It also appears to bind human cells more tightly than the SARS virus, which may help to explain why the new coronavirus appears to spread more easily from person to person, mainly by respiratory transmission.

McLellan’s team and his NIAID VRC counterparts also plan to use the stabilized spike protein as a probe to isolate naturally produced antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Such antibodies might form the basis of a treatment for people who’ve been exposed to the virus, such as health care workers.

The NIAID is now working with the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, to use the latest findings to develop a vaccine candidate using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that serve as templates for making proteins. The goal is to direct the body to produce a spike protein in such a way to elicit an immune response and the production of antibodies. An early clinical trial of the vaccine in people is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Other vaccine candidates are also in preclinical development.

Meanwhile, the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for COVID-19 is already underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit [3]. The NIH-sponsored trial will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. The first participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

As noted, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States is currently low, but the situation is changing rapidly. One of the features that makes the virus so challenging to stay in front of is its long latency period before the characteristic flu-like fever, cough, and shortness of breath manifest. In fact, people infected with the virus may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks, allowing them to pass it on to others in the meantime. You can track the reported cases in the United States on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

As the outbreak continues over the coming weeks and months, you can be certain that NIH and other U.S. public health organizations are working at full speed to understand this virus and to develop better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.


[1] Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Wrapp D, Wang N, Corbett KS, Goldsmith JA, Hsieh CL, Abiona O, Graham BS, McLellan JS. Science. 2020 Feb 19.

[2] A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Wu F, Zhao S, Yu B, Chen YM, Wang W, Song ZG, Hu Y, Tao ZW, Tian JH, Pei YY, Yuan ML, Zhang YL, Dai FH, Liu Y, Wang QM, Zheng JJ, Xu L, Holmes EC, Zhang YZ. Nature. 2020 Feb 3.

[3] NIH clinical trial of remdesivir to treat COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release. Feb 25, 2020.


Coronaviruses (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIAID)

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Battling Malaria at the Atomic Level

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Cryo-EM Image of P. falciparum Protein
Credit: Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York

Tropical medicine has its share of wily microbes. Among the most clever is the mosquito-borne protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, which is the cause of the most common—and most lethal—form of malaria. For decades, doctors have used antimalarial drugs against P. falciparum. But just when malaria appeared to be well on its way to eradication, this parasitic protozoan mutated in ways that has enabled it to resist frontline antimalarial drugs. This resistance is a major reason that malaria, one of the world’s oldest diseases, still claims the lives of about 400,000 people each year [1].

This is a situation with which I have personal experience. Thirty years ago before traveling to Nigeria, I followed directions and took chloroquine to prevent malaria. But the resistance to the drug was already widespread, and I came down with malaria anyway. Fortunately, the parasite that a mosquito delivered to me was sensitive to another drug called Fansidar, which acts through another mechanism. I was pretty sick for a few days, but recovered without lasting consequences.

While new drugs are being developed to thwart P. falciparum, some researchers are busy developing tools to predict what mutations are likely to occur next in the parasite’s genome. And that’s what is so exciting about the image above. It presents the unprecedented, 3D atomic-resolution structure of a protein made by P. falciparum that’s been a major source of its resistance: the chloroquine-resistance transporter protein, or PfCRT.

In this cropped density map, you see part of the protein’s biochemical structure. The colorized area displays the long, winding chain of amino acids within the protein as helices in shades of green, blue and gold. These helices enclose a central cavity essential for the function of the protein, whose electrostatic properties are shown here as negative (red), positive (blue), and neutral (white). All this structural information was captured using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). The technique involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera.

This groundbreaking work, published recently in Nature, comes from an NIH-supported multidisciplinary research team, led by David Fidock, Matthias Quick, and Filippo Mancia, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York [2]. It marks a major feat for structural biology, because PfCRT is on the small side for standard cryo-EM and, as Mancia discovered, the protein is almost featureless.

These two strikes made Mancia and colleagues wonder at first whether they would swing and miss at their attempt to image the protein. With the help of coauthor Anthony Kossiakoff, a researcher at the University of Chicago, the team complexed PfCRT to a bulkier antibody fragment. That doubled the size of their subject, and the fragment helped to draw out PfCRT’s hidden features. One year and a lot of hard work later, they got their homerun.

PfCRT is a transport protein embedded in the surface membrane of what passes for the gut of P. falciparum. Because the gene encoding it is highly mutable, the PfCRT protein modified its structure many years ago, enabling it to pump out and render ineffective several drugs in a major class of antimalarials called 4-aminoquinolines. That includes chloroquine.

Now, with the atomic structure in hand, researchers can map the locations of existing mutations and study how they work. This information will also allow them to model which regions of the protein to be on the lookout for the next adaptive mutations. The hope is this work will help to prolong the effectiveness of today’s antimalarial drugs.

For example, the drug piperaquine, a 4-aminoquinoline agent, is now used in combination with another antimalarial. The combination has proved quite effective. But recent reports show that P. falciparum has acquired resistance to piperaquine, driven by mutations in PfCRT that are spreading rapidly across Southeast Asia [3].

Interestingly, the researchers say they have already pinpointed single mutations that could confer piperaquine resistance to parasites from South America. They’ve also located where new mutations are likely to occur to compromise the drug’s action in Africa, where most malarial infections and deaths occur. So, this atomic structure is already being put to good use.

Researchers also hope that this model will allow drug designers to make structural adjustments to old, less effective malarial drugs and perhaps restore them to their former potency. Perhaps this could even be done by modifying chloroquine, introduced in the 1940s as the first effective antimalarial. It was used worldwide but was largely shelved a few decades later due to resistance—as I experienced three decades ago.

Malaria remains a constant health threat for millions of people living in subtropical areas of the world. Wouldn’t it be great to restore chloroquine to the status of a frontline antimalarial? The drug is inexpensive, taken orally, and safe. Through the power of science, its return is no longer out of the question.


[1] World malaria report 2019. World Health Organization, December 4, 2019

[2] Structure and drug resistance of the Plasmodium falciparum transporter PfCRT. Kim J, Tan YZ, Wicht KJ, Erramilli SK, Dhingra SK, Okombo J, Vendome J, Hagenah LM, Giacometti SI, Warren AL, Nosol K, Roepe PD, Potter CS, Carragher B, Kossiakoff AA, Quick M, Fidock DA, Mancia F. Nature. 2019 Dec;576(7786):315-320.

[3] Determinants of dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine treatment failure in Plasmodium falciparum malaria in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam: a prospective clinical, pharmacological, and genetic study. van der Pluijm RW, Imwong M, Chau NH, Hoa NT, et. al. Lancet Infect Dis. 2019 Sep;19(9):952-961.


Malaria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Fidock Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York)

Video: David Fidock on antimalarial drug resistance (BioMedCentral/YouTube)

Kossiakoff Lab (University of Chicago)

Mancia Lab (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

Matthias Quick (Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

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

MicroED: From Powder to Structure in a Half-Hour

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MicroED determines structure in 30 min

Credit: Adapted from Jones et al.

Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.

The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on [1] and the journal Angewandte Chemie [2], MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!

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