A Q&A With An NYC Scientist Working To Help Find A Coronavirus Breakthrough


Since the coronavirus outbreak began, researchers all over the globe who specialize in infectious diseases have been racing to find treatments as well as a cure. On the latter, there are more than 100 vaccines under development. While the White House has set out to fast-track the process, most vaccines can take years to develop. With that in mind, other scientists have trying to repurpose existing drugs developed to fight other diseases like malaria. Focusing on drugs that have already been tested means that they can proceed to the human clinical trial stage much faster than a newly developed remedy.

As of May 11th, the Federal Drug Administration reported that more than 130 clinical trials of potential COVID-19-related drugs are underway.

To gain a better understanding of the day-to-day work of coronavirus researchers, Gothamist recently spoke with Dr. Nacho Mena, a microbiologist who is member of a worldwide known virology team at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Lately, he and his colleagues have been working to clone the coronavirus, a commonly used technique in the field of virology that makes it easier for researchers to test potential treatments as well as create a vaccine.

What have been the most promising discoveries your team and others at Mount Sinai have made to date on the virus?

Nowadays, research discoveries are usually the result of collaborations between several groups. Several members of my group, in collaboration with researchers at UCSF [University of California San Francisco] have recently published an article in the very prestigious journal Nature describing drugs that inhibit the coronavirus growth in cells infected in the laboratory. Some of these drugs will now be tested in animal models, the most promising could be evaluated in clinical trials.

Also, researchers from several departments at Mount Sinai have developed a test to measure antibodies in the blood that has recently received emergency use authorization from the FDA and is already being used by many research groups around the world.

Can you tell us what it means to clone the virus? Why do scientists want to do this as opposed to working with live virus material? How long will this process take?

The goal of making an infectious clone is to make a copy of the genetic material of the virus in a way that allows us to obtain the virus in the laboratory using that genetic material. We call this “reverse genetics,” and has many applications. We can alter different genes of the virus in a controlled manner, to study the function of these genes.

We can also delete genes that make the virus more dangerous, and create safer viruses that could be used as a live, attenuated vaccine. In fact, one of the current efforts to make a vaccine is doing exactly that.

We can also make viruses that will be easier to follow up, for example, by introducing an additional gene that expresses a fluorescent protein. When this virus infects a cell, the cell will literally glow in the dark. This makes it easier to test potential treatments, because you “only” need to look for a drug that prevents the cells from becoming fluorescent with the virus.

The strategy to make viruses from the genetic material is different for each viral family. In our laboratory we do it routinely with influenza and with other related viruses. The coronaviruses are more difficult because they have the longest genome of all the RNA viruses. But it has already been done by other groups, and we hope to have our own infectious clone hopefully in about one month.

What is the level of collaboration like between different scientists around the world? Do we know how far China or other countries have come in developing treatments or a vaccine? Will they share whatever breakthroughs they find?

These days most of the research is done through collaborations with groups in different parts of the world and with expertise in many different fields. We collaborate with experts in protein-protein interactions that can do experiments for which we don’t have the expertise or the equipment. Similarly, we have collaborators that are experts in massive sequencing and sequence analysis. And others that use computer modeling to predict many aspects of the virus life or the disease, that then need to be tested with the real virus in the lab. This collaboration approach already existed before the coronavirus but now is more obvious because more groups are working toward a common goal.

Also, results are shared very fast through several ways of communication. We send and receive a tremendous amount of emails every day, we have all kind of video conferences to share results with our collaborators, and important results are published in scientific journals in a timely manner. With this abundance of information, it is also very important to remain critical, because not all the shared results come from good quality research.

How have scientists at Mount Sinai been working under the stay-at-home orders? Do you still commute to a lab?

Before the governor issued the instruction to “stay at home” for all non-essential workers, Mount Sinai had already asked their scientists to wrap up their experiments and stop all non-essential experimental work. The only exception was research on the new coronavirus that not only should go on, but also be enhanced as much as possible. Depending on the department, many groups have reduced their experimental work to a minimum and shifted to other kind of research that can be made from home such as analyzing data, writing manuscripts for publication, preparing grant applications, reviewing literature. Other departments, including mine, have shifted gears to focus on the new coronavirus. Many of us continue to work every day, even more hours than before, with some significant changes in our daily routines to minimize the risk of getting infected or infecting others.



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