Coronavirus: Czech scientists focus on role proteins play in spreading COVID-19

Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay / CC0

Scientists across the world are working to better understand the novel coronavirus now affecting hundreds of thousands of people. The Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, part of the Academy of Sciences, is doing its part by studying the proteins through which the virus spreads in the body.

Radim Nencka, photo: archive of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry
In Prague, near the Dejvice Theatre, lies the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. It was here that Antonín Holý 40 years ago discovered one of the most effective drugs against HIV, which helped save the lives of millions of people.

The proceeds that came from Holý’s discovery paid for the expansion of the Institute, which now features cutting-edge laboratories that also study molecular and cellular biology.

Czech scientists working in these labs have now turned their focus on COVID-19, the new coronavirus spreading across the world. Specifically, they on how it interacts with proteins within the human body, says team leader Dr Radim Nencka.

“Our task is to stop the activity of proteins which the virus needs in order to replicate. They can be both virus proteins or those of the host cell.”

Specifically, the scientists focus on two types of proteins, the polymerase enzyme that helps COVID-19 spread, and then another type that they call ‘invisible proteins’.

“These are used by the virus to add to its RNA a sort of ‘hat’ that makes it hard for our cells to both recognise their infected counterparts and destroy them.”

The team’s mission is to find new substances that help prevent the chain reaction through which the virus replicates.

However, this takes place without researchers actually coming in contact with COVID-19. Instead, they use samples of other coronaviruses, such as the original SARS virus, or the feline version of it.

These samples are supplied by the Veterinary Institute in Brno as well as the University of Giessen, in Germany, Dr Nencka told Czech Radio.

Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay / CC0
“They are not trying to get the specific coronavirus. First, because it is dangerous. Second, because it is quite difficult to get the right sample out of a client. Safety is the most important factor.”

Aside from actual viruses, the scientists also use computer models for their tests. Such computer modelling enables them to create new molecules that follow the necessary criteria for connecting to the protein.

Although they do not work with the virus specifically, the genetic structure of COVID-19 is well known to the Czech scientists, say Dr Nencka, noting that is thanks to the speed with which their Chinese counterparts published the information.