Decoy protein injection could stop COVID-19

Decoy proteins that bind and trap the coronavirus to stop it infecting cells in our bodies are being developed by the University of Leicester.

Using pioneering techniques in molecular evolution, a method used in protein engineering to evolve a protein to optimise its use, the research team led by Professor Nick Brindle at Leicester, and with Dr Julian Sale at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), are working on the creation of a new soluble protein that binds to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, thereby preventing it from being able to bind to and infect our cells.

The COVID-19 virus normally infects lungs and tissues by binding to a receptor called ACE2 on the surface of our cells. The decoy mimics these receptors, but it is engineered to be more attractive to the virus, so it will bind to the decoy and not ACE2, preventing the virus from ‘hijacking’ and reproducing within our cells.

Nick Brindle, Professor of Cell Signalling at the University of Leicester’s Departments of Molecular & Cell Biology and Cardiovascular Sciences, said:

“This is an innovative approach in the ongoing fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. By ‘hijacking’ the receptors on cells in our lungs and other tissues the virus can grow and spread throughout the body and lead to disease.

“By creating an attractive decoy protein for the virus to bind to, we are aiming to block the ability of this virus to infect cells and protect the function of the cell surface receptors.

“If this approach is successful, it could have the potential to prevent new cases of this deadly disease across the globe.”

The initial set of results will be available in two to three months.

To facilitate their research, Professor Brindle’s team is using a technique called Cryo-Electron Microscopy (Cryo-EM), which enables scientists to image whole virus or parts of the virus in a native environment. The biological sample is frozen rapidly and then imaged by targeting a beam of high energy particles called electrons, which have a wavelength much smaller than the biological molecules being imaged.

As part of its world-leading efforts to support research into COVID-19 and diagnostic testing, the University of Leicester has been working on a number of research projects including the development of a diagnostic mask that could potentially detect the presence of coronavirus before symptoms appear.

In addition, the University has donated thousands of items of PPE from its laboratories and lent diagnostic machinery to both the local NHS Trust and the national diagnostic hub at Milton Keynes.