Like an intruder deactivating an alarm before entering a building without bells going off, the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has been found to have the same advantage entering cells. A new study in Nature Communications describes how the coronavirus achieves this.
The virus produces an enzyme called nsp16, which it then uses to modify its messenger RNA cap. In lay terms, messenger RNA can be described as a deliverer of genetic code to worksites that produce proteins.
The modifications by the virus serve as a camouflage, the researchers explained. “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,” lead author Yogesh Gupta of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) said in a statement.
Researchers found this when they resolved the structure of nsp16. Deciphering the 3D structure of nsp16, Dr Gupta said, paves the way for rational design of antiviral drugs for Covid-19 and other emerging coronavirus infections. The new small molecules in the drugs would inhibit nsp16 from making the modifications. The immune system would then recognise the virus as foreign, and target it.
“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 co-author Robert Hromas, professor and dean of the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.
Source: University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
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