19 November 2021

New discovery could make life difficult for corona virus


Viruses’ only purpose is to reproduce, but a new discovery at the University of Copenhagen can help prevent that. The discovery is the result of a collaboration between Danish and Swedish researchers who have developed a molecule capable of curbing the spread of coronavirus.

The discovery could prove to be an antiviral treatment candidate for COVID-19 (Photo: Colourbox).

Viruses’ purpose is to infect as many cells as possible in the host body. They do so by making copies of themselves.

But in a new Danish-Swedish study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have developed a molecule that may be able to limit coronavirus’s ability to spread through the body. 

“The molecule we have designed is able to slow down the spread of the virus in cells. It is a so-called peptide inhibitor. Hopefully, it will cause coronavirus to spread at a slower pace, giving the body a better chance to fight it,” says Professor Jakob Nilsson from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research.

“We hope our results can pave the way for a new virus control tool, which we can put to use in case we get a new virus outbreak at a time when there is no available vaccine,” he says.

In order to reproduce, coronavirus must be able to produce new genetic material, RNA, which it then wraps in a small protective suit and releases from our cells in order for it to infect even more cells.

The virus cannot do it alone, though, and it therefore “hijacks” proteins from the infected body and uses them to its own advantage. However, the researchers’ new discovery may be able to prevent the virus from using a specific protein that is vital to its survival.

“Our study shows that SARS-CoV-2, which is the cause of the current outbreak of coronavirus, has developed a unique way to hijack one of our proteins. And this specific protein is vital to SARS-CoV-2’s ability to reproduce. Using the peptide inhibitor, we can prevent this hijack and thus limit the virus’s ability to make copies of itself,” says Associate Professor Thomas Kruse, who has contributed to the discovery.

The method can curb new virus outbreaks

In order to test their discovery in the laboratory, the researchers administered the peptide inhibitor to cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 and compared them to cells administered with an inactive peptide inhibitor. They then counted the number of copies the virus produced and got significantly smaller figures for the first group of cells.

We should have used the MERS and SARS outbreaks to develop a better understanding of coronavirus and drugs for fighting this type of virus. Unfortunately, we failed to do so.

Professor Jakob Nilsson.

“Because of the inhibitor, we found at least 10 times less virus particles than usual, which is a lot. It is not ready for use on humans yet, but we have already taken important steps towards making it possible,” says Postdoc Dimitriya Garvanska, who has contributed to the study.

The study, which has been published in Nature Communications, is based on a new method developed at Uppsala University in Sweden. The method enables the researchers to determine exactly how viruses hijack proteins in our cells.

In order to prevent this hijacking, you need to know how the virus does it and which proteins it needs. It is a puzzle which the Danish-Swedish collaboration has done for a total of 23 corona viruses.

“Aside from SARS-CoV-2 - the current coronavirus -, we have screened 22 other coronaviruses for interaction with the proteins in our cells. The fact that we have a relatively large database of knowledge of how viruses operate enables us to compare potential new coronaviruses and determine how we can fight them,” says Jakob Nilsson.

“If we should see an outbreak of a brand new virus 10 years from now, for example, this should enable us to fight it with medicine while we wait for a vaccine. Some years back we had the MERS and SARS outbreaks, which fortunately did not develop into a severe pandemic like the one we are seeing today. But because these outbreaks did not develop into global pandemics, research in the area more or less came to a halt. Instead, we should have used the opportunity to develop a better understanding of coronavirus and drugs for fighting this type of virus. Unfortunately, we failed to do so.”

Researchers from the Mann group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research also contributed to the study. Read the entire study here: Large scale discovery of coronavirus-host factor protein interaction motifs reveals SARS-CoV-2 specific mechanisms and vulnerabilities.

Read more about the study at videnskab.dk (in Danish) and The Scientist.


Professor Jakob Nilsson
+45 21 32 80 25

Press Officer Søren Thiesen
+45 28 75 29 34