COLUMBIA — A University of Missouri professor has been awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation as a part of a national push to better understand the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across the world.
The Rapid Response Research grant will fund a year of research for biochemistry professor Steven Van Doren.
Van Doren, whose expertise is in protein interactions, will work with Yan Fulcher and Rama Koppisetti to study fusion peptides, which are a key part of how the virus takes hold of a human cell.
"I was aware of some of the research that had been done, and I delved into it deeply and realized there was a gap in the understanding, despite a lot of sophisticated science that was done, of a certain part of the protein on the surface of the coronavirus that the virus uses to infect cells," Van Doren said.
Lately, the news has been awash with scientific-looking images of a particle with spiky prods on the surface.
"If you've seen the pictures of the spherical particles on the TV, they're studded with these things that are kind of cool looking — they're these little triangles," Van Doren said. "The triangles are the key protein I'm talking about."
The triangles are called spike proteins.
"That outer triangular part you've seen on the TV will touch something on the human cell surface, which triggers a chain of events, which includes a major rearrangement in the shape of the spike," Van Doren said.
When that rearrangement happens, fusion peptides emerge, like a knife coming out of a sheath, Van Doren said.
As the "knife" or fusion peptide inserts into the surface of the cell, the human cell and the viral particle fuse.
"The virus then is infecting the cell and dumping its genetic information into the cell to reproduce," Van Doren said.
Van Doren said most of the research he's seen so far have been focused on the spike protein when it is inactive and the fusion peptide isn't exposed.
"Much of the research on this virus has focused on the point at which it attaches to a human cell," Van Doren said in a news release. "But this virus is like a mouse trap: It baits, and then it snaps. Everyone is looking at the bait, or the part of the virus that initially attaches. We want to look at the 'snap' — if we can understand how the virus particle actually merges with the cell, then alternative vaccines could be developed that might prevent infections."
The team will research what the fusion peptide looks like before it touches the cell membrane and when its partially inserted.
"This is important because this fusion peptide could be protective to people," he said. "If we had that circulating in our systems, our bodies could make antibodies against that to help protect us, immunize us, against infection. Part of my mission is to call attention to the scientific community to this important part of the infectious process."
Van Doren hopes a better understanding of the fusion peptide could help with future vaccine development. While most current vaccine development is focused on other parts of the virus, the fusion peptide might play a role in the next generation of vaccines.
"There's some precedent to think that this could work," he said.
The virus that has infected millions worldwide is closely related to the SARS outbreak of 2002, and the two have a similar fusion peptide.
"The fusion peptide is really more similar among coronaviruses, and that's important because there are lots of coronaviruses in the world and we expect to see more coronavirus outbreaks in the future," Van Doren said. "There's a basic scientific question that's really important in the long term, and that's how do envelope viruses, which cause diseases, how do they fuse their viral envelopes with the human cell?"
Van Doren isn't the only MU researcher turning to COVID-19.
Another team received a COVID-19 RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to study the 1918 flu pandemic in Missouri to help inform strategies for mitigating spread of the virus.
And the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Missouri Department of Natural Resources are funding a project to search for the presence of the virus in wastewater collected from Missouri sewer systems.