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Project for the development of antibodies, drugs and a vaccine against coronavirus


A consortium formed by the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the Animal Health Research Center IRTA-CReSA develops new strategies against the SARS-CoV-2

Scientists from the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) and the Animal Health Research Center IRTA-CReSA launched a project focused on the development of antibodies, drugs and a vaccine against the coronavirus, the virus that appeared in late 2019 and has become a worldwide pandemic. The project is funded by the pharmaceutical company Grifols and will combine the expertise in virology, bioinformatics and animal models from the three institutions, respectively.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a family of viruses that can cause different pathologies, from the common cold to more serious diseases such as pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death. The current outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan (China) on December 31th, 2019. The rapid spread of the infection and the increasing number of deaths support the need for vaccines and antivirals to control the disease. However, the design of these treatments requires a deep analysis of the virus and the capacity to test the efficacy and safety of the drugs and vaccines that are generated.


Three fields of expertise

On the one hand, the BSC will use the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2, published on January 10th, to study thousands of antibodies and protein variants of this virus. The team led by the ICREA researcher Alfonso Valencia can determine the structure of their proteins by using the coronavirus genome. Specifically, they will focus on the Spike protein (S protein), which allows the virus to enter the host cell.

As soon as the structure of the S protein is discovered, the researchers will design a molecule to block the binding of the S protein to the receptor of the host cell, called ACE2. "When we arrive at this point, from IrsiCaixa will design and produce antibodies against the S protein," says Julià Blanco, IGTP researcher at IrsiCaixa. "This strategy, as well as the study of new small molecules that block the union between the virus and the host cell, would be a short-term solution, because they are simple to produce," he says.

The molecules that better respond on the laboratory will be tested on infection models from IRTA-CReSA. The team at this institution, co-led by Joaquim Segalés and Júlia Vergara-Alert, worked with the the MERS-CoV coronavirus on the past, responsible for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Before testing the molecules, they must identify the best animal model.


Vaccine, a long-term strategy

Vaccines require a wide study and have a long way to go before they are approved by the regulatory committees. Even though these solutions are not immediate, they have great potential for fighting the SARS-CoV-2infection and other new coronavirus threats.

The vaccines will be performed using VLPs (virus-like particles), which are laboratory-designed particles that have the same structure as a virus but have no infectious capacity. These VLPs will have the SARS-CoV-2 Spike proteins. Thus, when we administer the VLPs to healthy people, the immune system will recognize the virus and generate antibodies, and the individual will have defenses against the virus in case of viral exposure.

As with the antibodies, these particles will be generated using the structural models of BSC, the biochemical techniques of IrsiCaixa and animal models of the IRTA-CreSA.

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