Although there are hundreds of coronaviruses, only seven are known to infect humans, of which three have proven to be currently fatal: SARS, MERS and COVID-19. First identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, COVID-19 has now spread to over 200 countries and territories and over 11,125,245 cases have been registered worldwide so far.

Why are Coronaviruses so deadly? The spike proteins on the surface of the Coronavirus latch onto ACE2 receptors on lung cells. Proteolytic cleavage of the spike protein by the human serine protease TMPRSS2 then removes the S1 subunit of the spike protein, where upon the S2 subunit inserts the cleaved terminus into the host cells plasma membrane, physically attaching the virus to the host cell and initiating the fusion process. Following fusion, COVID-19 appears to deploy a series of strategies to evade immune recognition and response, including mechanisms to evade recognition by the cells viral Pattern Recognition Receptors, inhibition of the cells interferon response, and suppression of the transcription of Interferon Stimulated Genes and their effector functions. In common with other viruses, COVID-19 also deploys glycan molecules over its surface to evade antibody recognition of its spike proteins.

The UK reached 100 days of lockdown at the end of June, so what has research discovered about COVID-19 so far?

Researching COVID-19

Most global research projects are focusing on creating a COVID-19 vaccine by identifying ways to either:

    1. Improve the immune system’s ability to recognise the virus and therefore to reduce the hyperimmune response,

    2. Prevent the virus from entering a lung cell,

    3. encourage replication of defective viruses, OR

    4. interfere with the mechanisms the virus uses toreplicate itself.

The global research community has risen to the challenge of COVID-19, with many laboratories quickly switching from their current research focus to dedicate their time to COVID-19:

Industry and Academic collaboration to develop COVID-19 vaccine

Our Vanderbilt University partners have collaborated with an industry partner to start clinical trials of two antibodies that target COVID-19. These antibodies aim to provide a combination therapy that binds to separate parts of COVID-19’s protein that attaches to lung cells. Explore this partnership or contact us to register your interest in Vanderbilt University’s COVID-19 research tools.

Re-examining existing research tools

One cancer researcher is changing the focus of his work from adenoviruses to COVID-19. His work focuses on modifying adenovirus DNA to release antigens once a tumour cell has been infected by the virus. This helps the immune system better identify and target the tumour cells. This lab is now trying to use these adenoviruses to create a COVID-19 vaccine. Discover more about their work.


Adaptability and sharing resources is key

However, to ensure the most progress is made, having tools that track and share the latest COVID-19 research and progression of the pandemic is key. Some cancer researchers are therefore sharing their tools, expertise and facilities with the COVID-19 response:


Collating and simplifying access to COVID-19 data: Coronavirus-CanSAR

CanSAR is an existing database that focuses on providing a comprehensive overview of the latest cancer research that answers fundamental questions within drug discovery. Saving both researchers and industry time, it has helped guide cancer drug development. Based on this system, the new Coronavirus-CanSAR resource has been introduced. Like CanSAR, this database draws on global information to provide the latest information on what’s known about COVID-19 and on drugs and clinical trials that are taking place. Discover how other cancer scientists are using their technology to support COVID-19 research.

Providing accurate and widespread COVID-19 testing

Although beating cancer remains Cancer Research UK’s priority, COVID-19 means that the charity is not able to fully focus on this mission. Some Cancer Research UK researchers have switched their focus from cancer research to volunteering their expertise at COVID-19 testing facilities. Using their scientific knowledge and expertise, these researchers are helping to increase the number of COVID samples tested a day within the UK. Learn more about their experiences.

Other Cancer Research UK researchers are using their current research projects and techniques to find inspiration for new ways of testing COVID-19 samples. This research has the potential to not only provide tests that enhance our knowledge of COVID-19, but could also be easily adapted if COVID-19 mutates in the future. Explore this research.

COVID-19 challenges

Since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as research efforts worldwide have focused on better understanding COVID-19 and attempting to find a cure, several challenges have emerged. Although COVID-19 has found to be fairly stable, it has started to acquire mutations. This creates the challenge of needing to find a vaccine before COVID-19 mutates to a stage where current vaccine research proves ineffective. In addition, the original hope that those recovering from COVID-19 would receive long-lasting immunity from the virus is appearing unlikely. This means that like with the common cold, those who have already experienced COVID-19 could become re-infected the following year. These challenges suggest that we may be fighting COVID-19 for some time to come.

COVID-19 – the new common cold?

Research into existing Coronavirus strains, suggests that when these viruses first crossed into the human population, they also caused epidemics. Over time, they lost their effectiveness and now are responsible for 20-30% of common cold cases. Although this may also occur with COVID-19, in the meantime, global research attention remains firmly fixed on identifying a vaccine. Drug development timescales that would usually take years, are being achieved in much shorter periods of time. Already 155 vaccines are in development with 40 in human trials, raising the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine being available and in use at some point over the next year.

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