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5 Ways The World Fought Back

Sam Worley
May 10, 2020

A map matching coronavirus and human proteins could help scientists find possible COVID-19 treatments among existing drugs, researchers in Texas have been studying llama antibodies for their therapeutic potential, and restaurateurs in the Netherlands are thinking outside the box about dining out in the era of social distancing — it’s just that the dining will happen inside a box. Here’s our weekly roundup of hopeful developments in the fight against the coronavirus.


Old Drugs, New Tricks?


A map matching coronavirus and human proteins could help scientists find possible COVID-19 treatments among existing drugs Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A team at the University of California, San Francisco, pored through existing drugs and compounds in search of ones that might be used to treat COVID-19. As a result, researcher Nevan Krogan writes in The Conversation, “we’ve identified some strong treatment leads and identified two separate mechanisms for how these drugs affect SARS-CoV-2.”

Why does it matter? “Our idea was that by better understanding how the coronavirus and human bodies interact, we could find treatments among the thousands of drugs and compounds that already exist,” Krogan writes, explaning that the project began with a map: “The map shows all of the coronavirus proteins and all of the proteins found in the human body that those viral proteins could interact with. In theory, any intersection on the map between viral and human proteins is a place where drugs could fight the coronavirus.”

How does it work? Starting with the more than 2,000 unique drugs already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in humans, Krogan and his colleagues narrowed their list down to 69 existing drugs and compounds, and have tested 47 against live coronavirus in the lab. They learned not just what potential drugs might be used against COVID-19, but how and why — information that might help other researchers as they seek to develop treatments to the disease. The findings were published in the journal Nature.


Llama, You Been On My Mind


A 4-year-old Belgian llama named Winter could point to a COVID-19 treatment. Top and above images credit: Tim Coppens/University of Texas.

What is it? At the University of Texas at Austin, scientists found a potential treatment for COVID-19 in an unlikely place: a 4-year-old Belgian llama called Winter.

Why does it matter? If it pans out, the treatment could help people after they’ve been infected with the coronavirus, said Jason McLellan, co-senior author of a new paper in the journal Cell: “Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection. With antibody therapies, you’re directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease.”

How does it work? McLellan and his colleagues “linked two copies of a special kind of antibody produced by llamas,” according to UT News, to create a new antibody that binds with the coronavirus’ infamous spike protein, blocking it from infecting host cells. “This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2,” McLellan said.



Cell Defense


"The antibody used in this work is ‘fully human,’ allowing development to proceed more rapidly and reducing the potential for immune-related side effects,” said Erasmus Medical Center’s Frank Grosveld. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Speaking of antibodies: A collaboration of researchers in the Netherlands has identified a “fully human monoclonal antibody” that prevents the new coronavirus from infecting cells in culture.

Why does it matter? As mentioned above, some therapeutic antibody treatments are developed in other species and then must  be adapted for use in humans. Erasmus Medical Center’s Frank Grosveld, co-lead author of a new paper in Nature Communications, said, “The antibody used in this work is ‘fully human,’ allowing development to proceed more rapidly and reducing the potential for immune-related side effects.”

 How does it work? Another co-lead author, Utrecht University’s Berend-Jan Bosch, said the development builds off work the researchers had previously done on antibodies related to the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak; out of those previously identified antibodies, they were able to find one that may work against the new virus, SARS-CoV-2. “Such a neutralizing antibody has potential to alter the course of infection in the infected host, support virus clearance or protect an uninfected individual that is exposed to the virus,” Bosch said. It might have potential, too, against future coronaviruses.



Greenhouse Effects


 The Dutch are experts at growing produce and flowers inside gigantic greenhouses. Now mini-greehouses are helping reopen one local restaurant. Image credit: Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic Amsterdam.

What is it? And speaking of the Netherlands, one restaurant in Amsterdam is pioneering new methods of social distancing: It’s introduced individual glass “greenhouses” encasing every table.

Why does it matter? The Netherlands has created a four-month plan for easing its lockdown, beginning next week. It includes a requirement that customers at restaurants, cinemas and cafes stay 1.5 meters away from one another — about 5 feet.

How does it work? The Dutch are experts at growing produce and flowers inside gigantic greenhouses. The vegan restaurant Mediamatic ETEN calls its plan Serres Séparées — French for “separated greenhouses.” Starting May 21 with two- and three-person tables — each enclosed in a mini greenhouse — it’ll offer a four-course plant-based menu. “This was one of the most feasible ideas from a large list of ideas we had when brainstorming,” said Mediamatic founding partner Willem Velthoven, and already it’s a hit: Reservations are sold out through the end of June.


Search Engine For COVID

getty helps draw connections between discrete papers and projects. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The mountain of scientific work that researchers are creating on the new coronavirus is only getting bigger: 200 new journal article are published every day. In order that we might be able to sift through it a little easier, a team of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has created a text-mining tool that uses machine learning and runs on a supercomputer.

Why does it matter? The work is in response to a White House request from March for experts to come up with ways to use artificial intelligence to help manage the flow of COVID-19 information. “There’s no doubt we can’t keep up with the literature, as scientists,” said Berkeley Lab scientist Kristin Persson, a co-lead on the project. “We need help to find the relevant papers quickly and to build correlations between papers that may not, on the surface, look like they’re talking about the same thing.”

How does it work? isn’t just searchable by keyword — machine learning helps draw connections between discrete papers and projects, said Gerbrand Ceber, another of the site’s creators: “On Google and other search engines, people search for what they think is relevant. Our objective is to do information extraction so that people can find nonobvious information and relationships. That’s the whole idea of machine learning and natural language processing that will be applied on these data sets.”