Dr's Casebook: Researchers may be close to finding Covid’s Achilles heel

Researchers may be close to finding Covid’s Achilles heel

Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 4:45 pm
Research is going on to find out if Covid has an Achilles heel. Photo: Getty Images

The vaccination programme continues to bring hope, although the transmissibility of the so-called Indian variant is an undoubted cause for concern.

The vaccines’ development and roll-out has been a remarkable success, but there is much research going on to find out if Covid has an Achilles heel

If we can find that - then we may be able to develop more drugs to fight the actual infection.

As everyone now knows from the images of the virus, it resembles a World War Two floating mine. It consists of a coil of RNA inside a spherical protein envelope.

This is covered in little spikes, which give it a hazy appearance under the electron microscope that looks like a corona, hence the name coronavirus.

In the same way that the spikes of a floating mine were the triggers for an explosion, these coronavirus spikes are so dangerous because they latch onto specific enzyme receptors on the surface of cells, which then allows them to enter the cell.

Once inside, they take over the cell’s DNA and force it to make huge numbers of copies of the virus, until they are released from the cell. This is how it spreads through the system.

It is not just how the virus gets into our cells that is important.

We also need to know how our cells respond to produce copies of the virus, because if that can be elucidated it may expose the virus’s Achilles heel and help develop antiviral drugs that target particular processes.

Research just published in the journal Molecular Cell has identified a set of genes that fight against the virus.

Attention was focused on interferons, a group of proteins that the cells release to defend themselves when they are infected, and which also activate other cells to mobilise an immune response.

This led the researchers to hunt for the human genes triggered by interferons, which are known as interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs).

They found that more than 60 ISGs controlled the Covid infection.

These included some that inhibited the spike protein’s ability to enter cells, some that suppressed the manufacture of the virus’s RNA, and a cluster of eight genes that inhibited protein coat production.

They think that the latter may be a target for antiviral drugs to clear the viral infection.

That Achilles heel may soon be exposed.