APR 02, 2020 8:24 AM PDT

How Particle Physicists can Lend a Hand to the Search for SARS-CoV-02 Cure, Explained

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

Schematic of a Synchrontron (Wikimedia Common)

With vaccines at least one year away and no proven effective treatment, the world has witnessed the loss of over 20,000 lives due to the SARS-CoV-02 infection. The medical community seems so helpless in the face of the deadly pandemic.

After a small handful of potential therapeutics were identified, the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched SOLIDARITY trial, intending to accelerate the search for a cure by testing four candidate drugs in thousands of patients worldwide.

While healthcare workers and clinical researchers are working hard to fight the pandemic, physicists aren't just watching from the sidelines. A particle physics-based technique that helps to advance the field of structural biology would allow scientists to examine the coronavirus up close, and develop successful treatments more efficiently.

We now know the structure of many biological macromolecule, thanks to X-ray crystallography. In the early 1930s, Cambridge biophysicist Dorothy Hodgkin and her Ph.D. supervisor John Desmond Bernal obtained the X-ray diffraction data of a crystallized enzyme called pepsin, marking the first X-ray crystallography of a biomolecule. This work eventually led a Chemistry Nobel for Hodgkin in 1964.

The same but more polished method has been used to study a wide range of molecules such as proteins, viral particles, and nucleic acids. Due to its short wavelength, X-ray diffraction can reveal structural detail in high resolution, allowing scientists to hypothesize and then test the functions of macromolecules in their host organisms.

To get a high-intensity light source, biologists these days turn to a kind of particle accelerator known as the synchrotrons, which can produce X-rays with enormous "luminosity" (X-rays aren't visible, but their intensity is comparable with visible light). The source is so "bright" that it outshines the light from our Sun by millions of times.

What is a synchrotron and how does it work? (Elettra)

A synchrotron, as its name indicates, is capable of synchronizing the circulating particles inside and accelerating them to the speed of light. It can produce different types of electromagnetic radiation, including visible, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays.

A recent report on an enzyme component of the SARS-CoV-2, is an excellent example that showcases the power of synchrotrons, and the automated imaging mechanisms hosted inside the same facility. In early February, a team of Chinese scientists at the ShanghaiTech University (Shanghai, China) published the first structure data of SARS-CoV-2 on Protein Data Bank. They obtained the X-ray crystallography of the main protease of the virus, 6LU7, by taking advantage of the high-intensity X-ray source at the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

As scientists race against time to probe the structure of the coronavirus, the synchrotron-based X-rays source will empower more biologists and pharmaceutical researchers in their search for the cure. It's hopeful that we can get access to effective viral treatment in the near future, with the help from these powerful particle accelerators.

Source: Physics World

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
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