There’s a new breakthrough on the horizon that scientists say could make it possible to prevent new viruses like COVID-19 before they start to take over the world.
Researchers in a lab at the University of Colorado in Boulder are working to create history. They’ve developed a first-of-its-kind scientific tool that could one day save lives all over the world with one shot.
“We’ve developed a way to identify mutations on the SARS-CoV-2 virus that can evade on a body,” said Tim Whitehead, associate professor at CU Boulder who leads this study.
SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.
Whitehead says identifying these mutations early can help them get ahead of different variants of the virus, one day helping to protect humans from more dangerous strains.
“Instead of playing catch up with the virus, we can go and give you that shot ahead of time. We’re going to catch the virus ahead of where it’s going to go,” Whitehead said.
To understand the effectiveness of vaccines and antibody treatments, this model of the coronavirus illustrates how its spiked proteins latch onto human cells, leading to an infection. But antibodies actually prevent those proteins from binding to the cell. When that same virus mutates, the antibodies no longer recognize it and fail to protect against the virus.
“We’d like to be able to know ahead of time whether that treatment is likely to work, and we can do that by already mapping the mutations that this antibody treatment works against,” Whitehead said.
In this lab, to map those mutations, they’re using a secret weapon: baker’s yeast.
On the surface of yeast, Whitehead and students designed a genetically modified version of the material to recreate the SARS-CoV-2’s viral spike proteins. From these modified proteins, they’re able to track mutations when they form or escape antibodies.
Their goal, unlike what happened with the pandemic, is to beat these variants before they develop in the real world.
“A universal vaccine would include a high immune response against all possible variants,” Whitehead said.
Researchers at CU Boulder are one step closer to making it happen.
“The next step is to identify escape mutants from the patient’s own set of antibodies,” Whitehead said said.
It’s a step towards making a priority for leading health experts a reality.