An increasing number of people are falling ill with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Researchers around the world are looking for solutions to contain the pandemic. Jülich scientists are also involved – together with colleagues from Germany and abroad, they are searching for active substances, for example, and are developing models to predict the further development of the pandemic.
Active substances against viruses are aimed at stopping their reproduction . There are various approaches. Jülich researchers led by Prof. Dieter Willbold from the Institute of Biological Information Processing are working on three of these. Together with experts from the Charité hospital in Berlin, they are developing a molecule that will prevent the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 from entering the human cell. Only there can it continue to reproduce. The scientists prevent this step by blocking the virus’ entranceway, the binding of the viral spike protein to the so-called ACE2 receptor.
In two other projects, the Jülich structural biochemists are investigating how two components of the virus can be inhibited: the protein ORF8 and the enzyme 3C-like protease. Both are essential for the reproduction of the virus in the cell.
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“Researchers now have to provide precise data on the spreading of the virus and the development of drugs as quickly as possible. We are working on this at full stretch.”
Prof. Thomas Lippert,Director of the Jülich Supercomputing Centre
It is also possible that existing drugs may help fight the virus. The difficulty is to identify promising candidates quickly and reliably. For this purpose, the EU project EXSCALATE4CORONAVIRUS uses the computing power of the largest supercomputing centres in Europe, including the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC). The computers will search for drugs against those proteins that are essential for the coronavirus to survive. “With the help of such virtual screenings, or systematic tests, in combination with biochemical and phenotypic high-throughput screening, billions of molecules can be evaluated against selected targets within a few weeks,” explain Jun. Prof. Giulia Rossetti and Prof. Paolo Carloni from Jülich’s Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-9). The INM-9 is carrying out part of the screening alongside the JSC and partners from science and industry.
The loss of the senses of smell and taste may indicate a COVID-19 infection. An online survey and an online smell and taste test will help to differentiate between the symptoms of this infection and those of other respiratory diseases. Over 500 experts from 50 countries are involved in the project, including the Jülich researcher Dr. Kathrin Ohla from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-3).
The study and the tests:
In addition to the search for effective treatment methods, the aim is to predict the course and extent of the infectious disease, but also the effects of countermeasures. Experts around by Prof. Thomas Lippert from the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, along with researchers from Heidelberg University and the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, are making forecasts for this with the aid of mathematical models and current data from the Robert Koch Institute. First results and science-based recommendations were presented to policy makers and the public shortly after Easter. The forecasts are constantly updated, and researchers are also working at full stretch on regionally differentiated models.
… Prof. Katrin Amunts, brain researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine (INM-1) and, until April 2020, Deputy Chair of the German Ethics Council
In its ad hoc recommendation at the end of March, the Ethics Council pointed out that there is also an ethical conflict involved in the pandemic. Which conflict is this?
A permanently high-quality, efficient health care system must be ensured, and at the same time, the measures must avert or mitigate serious side effects for the population and society. The situation calls for a careful balancing of the various interests, and the basic principles of solidarity and responsibility must not be allowed to go astray.
What does the Ethics Council recommend?
At present, the chief aim is to significantly slow down the spread of coronavirus. The appropriateness and effects of the measures must be constantly reassessed.
What role does science play in the pandemic?
Scientific findings are of central importance for the evaluation. For example, models are needed that allow for accurate prediction regarding the course of the pandemic and the impact of individual measures, thus supporting political decision-making.
Texts: Christian Hohlfeld
Photos: Lightspring/shutterstock.com, Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau