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You know that scene in The Martian when Matt Damon realizes he’s stuck alone on Mars? I loved it when he said, “I’m going to have to science the heck out of this.” (Um, he didn’t say “heck.”) Well, it’s pretty cool to see a bunch of scientists from all over the world assemble themselves into an emergency response team to science the heck out of the novel coronavirus. In this article from the March 17, 2020, edition of The New York Times, you can read about how scientists have combined forces to identify drugs that could block the novel virus.
There are two great things about this article. First, it’s a perfect demonstration of how understanding biology and evolution can help identify a virus’s vulnerabilities. Second, it’s an inspiring example of how science, at its best, can be of great and timely use to humanity.
Here’s the deal, in a nutshell.
Viruses can only reproduce by invading living cells and co-opting the cell’s proteins to make new viruses. Think of it as someone breaking into a closed bakery and using all the equipment and supplies to make their own bagels. Obviously, the viral genes and proteins have to be able to coordinate with the cellular proteins. But which proteins? That’s what the first group of scientists (from 22 labs around the world) quickly figured out: in just a couple of weeks, they identified the human proteins (all 400 of them!) that the coronavirus interacts with when it infects cells.
If you think about it for a second, you might ask yourself, “Hey, what are all those cellular proteins doing when there’s no virus around?” Great question! They are involved in all sorts of normal cellular processes, but they also are involved, sometimes, in pathways that cause diseases such as cancer or influenza. Meanwhile, chemists have, over time, built up huge libraries of chemicals that interact with cellular proteins in the hopes that some of them might work as drugs. Put the two together and you can start combing through those libraries of chemical compounds to see if any of them target the human proteins that the coronavirus needs. That’s what the second team of scientists is doing. In the very first screen, they identified 10 potential drugs.
The next step involved sending those drugs to yet another set of labs where scientists are growing the coronavirus in cell culture under strict biosafety laboratory conditions. They are already testing the 10 drug candidates to see if any of them block the virus from getting into cells, reproducing, or spreading from cell to cell. If any of them work, the next step will be to test them in animals to see if they are safe and effective in real life.
One of the most exciting things about this research is that many of these chemical compounds have already been through safety and clinical trials for other diseases, so if they prove effective, they could be produced and distributed as drugs right away.
Do I need to add that all of these results are being shared freely so that any scientist who has skills, resources, and ideas can get involved?
Sometimes it may seem as though individual, isolated scientists are spending their time competing with each other, working on obscure, complicated topics that have no real-life relevance. At a time like this, though, it becomes clear that when you have an emergency, all those obscure skills can be knit together into a seamless effort to solve an immediate and serious problem.
I’m glad (but not surprised) that the scientific community has risen to this occasion to show what happens when you science the heck out of something. It makes me proud, and it gives me a lot of hope.