SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus Has a “Camouflage” That Causes Cells Not to Recognize It – “Fundamental Advance in Our Understanding of the Virus”

Coronavirus Camouflage Concept

Researchers have uncovered how the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters cells without triggering immune system response. By modifying its messenger RNA cap using an enzyme called nsp16, the virus camouflages itself as part of the cell’s own code. This allows it to enter cells undetected.

Discovery lays groundwork for designing novel antiviral drugs.

With an alarm code, we can enter a building without bells going off. It turns out that the SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has the same advantage entering cells. It possesses the code to waltz right in.

Today (July 24, 2020), in Nature Communications, researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) reported how the coronavirus achieves this.

Yogesh K Gupta

Yogesh K. Gupta, Ph.D., and colleagues at UT Health San Antonio discovered the mechanism by which the novel coronavirus is able to enter cells without encountering immune system resistance. Credit: UT Health San Antonio

The scientists resolved the structure of an enzyme called nsp16, which the virus produces and then uses to modify its messenger RNA cap, said Yogesh Gupta, Ph.D., the study lead author from the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.

“It’s a camouflage,” Dr. Gupta said. “Because of the modifications, which fool the cell, the resulting viral messenger RNA is now considered as part of the cell’s own code and not foreign.”

Deciphering the 3D structure of nsp16 paves the way for rational design of antiviral drugs for COVID-19 and other emerging coronavirus infections, Dr. Gupta said. The drugs, new small molecules, would inhibit nsp16 from making the modifications. The immune system would then pounce on the invading virus, recognizing it as foreign.

“Yogesh’s work discovered the 3D structure of a key enzyme of the COVID-19 virus required for its replication and found a pocket in it that can be targeted to inhibit that enzyme. This is a fundamental advance in our understanding of the virus,” said study coauthor Robert Hromas, MD, professor and dean of the Long School of Medicine.

Dr. Gupta is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Structural Biology at UT Health San Antonio and is a member of the university’s Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute.

In lay terms, messenger RNA can be described as a deliverer of genetic code to worksites that produce proteins.

Reference: “Structural basis of RNA cap modification by SARS-CoV-2” by Thiruselvam Viswanathan, Shailee Arya, Siu-Hong Chan, Shan Qi, Nan Dai, Anurag Misra, Jun-Gyu Park, Fatai Oladunni, Dmytro Kovalskyy, Robert A. Hromas, Luis Martinez-Sobrido and Yogesh K. Gupta, 24 July 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17496-8

The laboratory of the lead author, Yogesh Gupta, Ph.D., is supported through funds from the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Foundation, the San Antonio Area Foundation, The University of Texas System, UT Health San Antonio, the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute of UT Health San Antonio, and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

1 Comment on "SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus Has a “Camouflage” That Causes Cells Not to Recognize It – “Fundamental Advance in Our Understanding of the Virus”"

  1. Carolyn L Zaremba | July 26, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Reply

    A very good explanation of this process appears in the book, “The Great Influenza” by John M. Barry in the chapter entitled “The Swarm”. Scary stuff.

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