Carmel Valley researcher helps provide insight into coronavirus cells

Rommie Amaro
(Courtesy)

Research into the sugary coating on coronavirus cells could provide insights into how to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which has so far caused almost 600,000 deaths worldwide.

“We basically use computers and different types of algorithms to understand what different parts of a virus look like and also how it moves,” said Carmel Valley resident Rommie Amaro, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego.

Amaro, with a team of researchers from UC San Diego and Maynooth University in Ireland, used the Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to learn about the atomic makeup of the coronavirus’ sugary cloak.

She added that her team’s work involves using computers “to fill in what the experimentalists can’t see.” Before Amaro and her team released their latest work about the novel coronavirus, capturing images of the sugary coating was as challenging as capturing clear images of tree branches that are blowing in the wind, she said.

“Our work gives some of the first views of what the sugary coating on the virus actually looks like,” Amaro said.

That coating is similar to the coating on human cells, which deceives the immune systems in people who are infected.

“The virus has basically evolved a strategy, essentially, to have a similar coding so that it basically masks itself from our human immune system,” Amaro said. “By making itself look like the cells in our body, basically our body doesn’t attack it with the immune system.”

In San Diego County, the number of COVID-19 cases has surpassed 20,000, with approximately 500 deaths, according to county data.

According to a UC San Diego news release, the simulation and modeling by Amaro and her team show that glycans, which are molecules that make up the sugary coating of the virus cells, also help induce infection by changing the shape of its spike protein.

The plan is to publish the research in a journal, when it will be peer-reviewed. Amaro said the study has already been viewed by scientists all over the world after it was posted online to a preprint repository called bioRxiv. She also said she’s had discussions with other scientists about the work.

Before researching the novel coronavirus, Amaro’s work focused on influenza.

“When SARS-CoV-2 hit, we were able to sort of pivot our efforts really quickly because a lot of the tools that we had been using to work with influenza, we basically could just recast into this new space with SARS-CoV-2,” Amaro said.


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