UCSF researchers look to turn COVID-19's weapons against itself

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The COVID-19 virus isn't just devastating, it's devastatingly clever, hijacking the power of our own cells in novel ways to make itself more dangerous. But now a team at UCSF is hoping to turn one of the virus's own weapons against it.

"In my opinion, you really have to respect the virus, let the virus tell you it's secrets," says research biologist Nevan Krogan.

Krogan and his team began spying on the virus as it infected human cells, paying special attention to how those cells were being exploited. Using tools like mass spectrometers and electron-microscopes they discovered something chilling. First, it helps to understand that invading viruses like COVID-19 use material in our own cells to make copies of themselves, eventually stretching the host cell like a balloon.

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And when that cell, or balloon, finally bursts, the newly minted virus copies spread out to attack surrounding cells. But it turns out COVID-19 is so devious, it doesn't need to wait for that burst to happen.

Microscopic images captured by collaborators Robert Grosse at the University of Freiburg in Germany and Elizabeth R. Fischer at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana showed the cells infected by COVID-19 had grown probe-like tentacles. They're known as Filopodia and have the ability to pierce the surface of surrounding cells, providing the COVID-19 virus with a kind of invasion tunnel. Possibly explaining how it spreads in the body so quickly.

"It's just such a, you know, brilliant, devious strategy," says Krogan of the virus' behavior.

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But Krogan also wondered, could it also have an Achilles heel? His team learned the virus was exploiting a specific type of molecule to help create the Filopodia. It's from a family of cellular helpers, known as Kinase. They're so critical to a cell's function that they've become a popular target for specialized cancer drugs, broadly known as Kinase-inhibitors. The question now, could one of those cancer-drugs also be a COVID fighter?

"We narrowed in on about a dozen, and we highlighted about six or seven that look particularly potent in a laboratory setting. And we're very excited now to try and take these into clinical trials," he says.

The strategy would be to block the virus from creating those tentacles, and perhaps slowing it's spread. If one of the kinase-inhibitors is successful, Professor Krogan believes it might also be combined with another drug in a type of cocktail formula to treat the virus.

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