Making our cells unrecognizable to the coronavirus

Coronavirus spikes 3D render

Western’s campus has been closed for months, the greenspaces empty and corridors eerily silent. The catalyst for this radical change was COVID-19. “This pandemic is awe-inspiring. It has brought to a halt everything that was familiar to us. My graduate students and I asked ourselves what we could do to make a difference in this new and frightening context, says Martin Stillman of the Department of Chemistry. Deep within the Chemistry Building, Stillman

and his research group toiled away on a series of experiments essential to understanding this silent killer. "Almost everyone has seen a depiction of the coronavirus by now: a ball covered in spikes,” says Stillman. “Those spikes are what allows the virus to attach to our own cells and may hold the key to understanding how it attacks both young and old, but in different ways." -Martin Stillman

The coronavirus spike attaches to a specific receptor found on the outside of certain cells in the human respiratory tract, similar to the way a ship moors at a dock. “What we want to know, is that if we change the shape of that receptor, does it stop the virus from attaching to the cell?” explains Stillman.

His research group does not typically address questions of virology, however, their area of expertise, bio-inorganic chemistry, makes them the much-needed specialists to study the interaction between the virus spike and our own cells. The Stillman group studies metals within the body, like the iron-based molecule hemoglobin, which is what attaches oxygen to our circulating red blood cells.

“The receptor is quite soft because it is made out of proteins; for structural rigidity, it relies on an embedded zinc molecule to act as a skeleton,” he explains. “We want to understand how the metal interacts with the proteins, how it holds those proteins together.” Knowing the role of zinc in the receptor will give researchers a clearer picture of how the virus attacks our cells. If the zinc skeleton can be altered, perhaps the receptor shape will change enough to prevent the virus from attaching.

Stillman and his students received funding from Western, established for COVID-19-related research, to pursue this idea. The pressure to find solutions to the pandemic weighs heavy as the group aims to bring us a step closer to understanding a critical feature of our own physiology and its adaptability, to fight off this global viral attack.