OSU targets COVID’s N protein; research could lead to new treatments

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at Oregon State University are looking at a new way to fight COVID-19 and it could result in new drugs and vaccines to combat the virus. 

Since early on in the pandemic, the spike protein, or S protein, of SARS-CoV-2 has been the focus of most COVID-19 treatment research. Scientists at OSU are instead focusing their research on targeting the nucleocapsid protein, or N protein. 

Coronaviruses, such as the one that causes the disease COVID-19, are RNA viruses, meaning the RNA holds the genetic instructions the virus uses to get living cells to make more of itself. The nucleocapsid protein’s job is to stick to the RNA and protect it. 

Researchers at OSU say the nucleocapsid protein is a prime target for disease-fighting interventions because of the critical jobs it performs for the novel coronavirus’ infection cycle and because it mutates at a slow pace compared to the spike protein. 

Elisar Barbar, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at OSU, says she and her team are trying to understand how the RNA and nucleocapsid stick together, where they stick together, and how to design drugs that will interfere with that sticking. 

“If we interfere with how the RNA of the N [protein] protects the RNA, then the RNA can be cleaved, can be cut into pieces, will not work and then we don’t have replication or transmission of the virus,” Barbar said.

Barbar says her lab is one of only a few in the world that are attacking the nucleocapsid protein and that they’ve made big strides with their research in a short amount of time. 

She says what’s nice about the research they’re doing on the N protein is that it could result in drugs and vaccines that both prevent the invasion of the virus and prevent the spread of the virus after someone is infected. Also, drugs or a vaccine that target the N protein could be more effective against COVID-19 variants. 

“All the worries that we have now about variants and if the vaccine works against the variants is because we’re focusing on the S protein, but when we start focusing on the N protein, the N protein does not vary as much. So, the vaccines that are developed would have a more lasting effect,” Barbar said. 

She says drugs or a vaccine developed to target the N protein would also not cause the immune reactions people have been experiencing after receiving vaccines that target the S protein. 

Barbar says she doesn’t know when exactly drugs or vaccines that target the nucleocapsid protein will be available. She says since the nucleocapsid protein is very flexible and does not have a very rigid structure, it is difficult to design drugs for. However, with new technologies they’re developing, they’re now able to design drugs for proteins that don’t have a lot of shape.

Barbar say drugs that prevent the N protein’s flexibility would be one potential avenue for pharmaceutical researchers.

She says she hopes they can start delivering treatments that target N proteins very soon and with the help of other laboratories, they may get there sooner. 

OSU scientists’ research was published in Biophysical Journal and the university says its findings are an important “jump-off point” for additional studies of the N protein and its interactions with RNA. 

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