For many people who’ve had COVID-19, the infections were thankfully mild and relatively brief. But these individuals’ immune systems still hold onto enduring clues about how best to neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Discovering these clues could point the way for researchers to design highly targeted treatments that could help to save the lives of folks with more severe infections.
An NIH-funded study, published recently in the journal Science, offers the most-detailed picture yet of the array of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 found in people who’ve fully recovered from mild cases of COVID-19. This picture suggests that an effective neutralizing immune response targets a wider swath of the virus’ now-infamous spike protein than previously recognized.
To date, most studies of natural antibodies that block SARS-CoV-2 have zeroed in on those that target a specific portion of the spike protein known as the receptor-binding domain (RBD)—and with good reason. The RBD is the portion of the spike that attaches directly to human cells. As a result, antibodies specifically targeting the RBD were an excellent place to begin the search for antibodies capable of fending off SARS-CoV-2.
The new study, led by Gregory Ippolito and Jason Lavinder, The University of Texas at Austin, took a different approach. Rather than narrowing the search, Ippolito, Lavinder, and colleagues analyzed the complete repertoire of antibodies against the spike protein from four people soon after their recoveries from mild COVID-19.
What the researchers found was a bit of a surprise: the vast majority of antibodies—about 84 percent—targeted other portions of the spike protein than the RBD. This suggests a successful immune response doesn’t concentrate on the RBD. It involves production of antibodies capable of covering areas across the entire spike.
The researchers liken the spike protein to an umbrella, with the RBD at the tip of the “canopy.” While some antibodies do bind RBD at the tip, many others apparently target the protein’s canopy, known as the N-terminal domain (NTD).
Further study in cell culture showed that NTD-directed antibodies do indeed neutralize the virus. They also prevented a lethal mouse-adapted version of the coronavirus from infecting mice.
One reason these findings are particularly noteworthy is that the NTD is one part of the viral spike protein that has mutated frequently, especially in several emerging variants of concern, including the B.1.1.7 “U.K. variant” and the B.1.351 “South African variant.” It suggests that one reason these variants are so effective at evading our immune systems to cause breakthrough infections, or re-infections, is that they’ve mutated their way around some of the human antibodies that had been most successful in combating the original coronavirus variant.
Also noteworthy, about 40 percent of the circulating antibodies target yet another portion of the spike called the S2 subunit. This finding is especially encouraging because this portion of SARS-CoV-2 does not seem as mutable as the NTD segment, suggesting that S2-directed antibodies might offer a layer of protection against a wider array of variants. What’s more, the S2 subunit may make an ideal target for a possible pan-coronavirus vaccine since this portion of the spike is widely conserved in SARS-CoV-2 and related coronaviruses.
Taken together, these findings will prove useful for designing COVID-19 vaccine booster shots or future vaccines tailored to combat SARS-COV-2 variants of concern. The findings also drive home the conclusion that the more we learn about SARS-CoV-2 and the immune system’s response to neutralize it, the better position we all will be in to thwart this novel coronavirus and any others that might emerge in the future.
 Prevalent, protective, and convergent IgG recognition of SARS-CoV-2 non-RBD spike epitopes. Voss WN, Hou YJ, Johnson NV, Delidakis G, Kim JE, Javanmardi K, Horton AP, Bartzoka F, Paresi CJ, Tanno Y, Chou CW, Abbasi SA, Pickens W, George K, Boutz DR, Towers DM, McDaniel JR, Billick D, Goike J, Rowe L, Batra D, Pohl J, Lee J, Gangappa S, Sambhara S, Gadush M, Wang N, Person MD, Iverson BL, Gollihar JD, Dye J, Herbert A, Finkelstein IJ, Baric RS, McLellan JS, Georgiou G, Lavinder JJ, Ippolito GC. Science. 2021 May 4:eabg5268.
If you love learning more about biology at a fundamental level, I have a great video for you! It simulates the 3D folding of RNA. RNA is a single stranded molecule, but it is still capable of forming internal loops that can be stabilized by base pairing, just like its famously double-stranded parent, DNA. Understanding more about RNA folding may be valuable in many different areas of biomedical research, including developing ways to help people with RNA-related diseases, such as certain cancers and neuromuscular disorders, and designing better mRNA vaccines against infectious disease threats (like COVID-19).
Because RNA folding starts even while an RNA is still being made in the cell, the process has proven hugely challenging to follow closely. An innovative solution, shown in this video, comes from the labs of NIH grantees Julius Lucks, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, and Alan Chen, State University of New York at Albany. The team, led by graduate student Angela Yu and including several diehard Star Wars fans, realized that to visualize RNA folding they needed a technology platform that, like a Star Wars droid, is able to “see” things that others can’t. So, they created R2D2, which is short for Reconstructing RNA Dynamics from Data.
What’s so groundbreaking about the R2D2 approach, which was published recently in Molecular Cell, is that it combines experimental data on RNA folding at the nucleotide level with predictive algorithms at the atomic level to simulate RNA folding in ultra-slow motion . While other computer simulations have been available for decades, they have lacked much-needed experimental data of this complex folding process to confirm their mathematical modeling.
As a gene is transcribed into RNA one building block, or nucleotide, at a time, the elongating RNA strand folds immediately before the whole molecule is fully assembled. But such folding can create a problem: the new strand can tie itself up into a knot-like structure that’s incompatible with the shape it needs to function in a cell.
To slip this knot, the cell has evolved immediate corrective pathways, or countermoves. In this R2D2 video, you can see one countermove called a toehold-mediated strand displacement. In this example, the maneuver is performed by an ancient molecule called a single recognition particle (SRP) RNA. Though SRP RNAs are found in all forms of life, this one comes from the bacterium Escherichia coli and is made up of 114 nucleotides.
The colors in this video highlight different domains of the RNA molecule, all at different stages in the folding process. Some (orange, turquoise) have already folded properly, while another domain (dark purple) is temporarily knotted. For this knotted domain to slip its knot, about 5 seconds into the video, another newly forming region (fuchsia) wiggles down to gain a “toehold.” About 9 seconds in, the temporarily knotted domain untangles and unwinds, and, finally, at about 23 seconds, the strand starts to get reconfigured into the shape it needs to do its job in the cell.
Why would evolution favor such a seemingly inefficient folding process? Well, it might not be inefficient as it first appears. In fact, as Chen noted, some nanotechnologists previously invented toehold displacement as a design principle for generating synthetic DNA and RNA circuits. Little did they know that nature may have scooped them many millennia ago!
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 . The lab did so by employing high-resolution X-ray crystallography tools . 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.