This Could Be the Coronavirus' "Achilles Heel," Researchers Say

Here's why we may be able to fight COVID with drugs that already exist on the market.

Every day, scientists make new discoveries about coronavirus that could change the course of the pandemic, but so far, no single discovery has had the potential to end it. That's why this study from UCSF's Quantitative Biosciences Institute is so exciting: if proven true, their findings could mean an end to the virus' reign of terror. They claim they've found COVID's "Achilles heel," and that it may be possible to stop its spread within the body by using drugs that already exist on the market.

The study, which was published last week in the journal Cell, reveals that when COVID infects human cells, it relies on a family of enzymes known as kinases in order to promote its own spread and survival. By attaching "tiny chemical tags to proteins," coronavirus is able to hijack those cells and reprogram them with the singular goal of multiplying.

Most alarmingly, one kinase called CK2, normally found in Ebola, can cause normal cells to grow tentacle-like extensions that serve as "molecular highways" for infecting neighboring cells. This allows the virus to rapidly overtake cells, sending a patient's health into a tailspin and sometimes causing a severe immune response that can be as dangerous as coronavirus itself.

Luckily, the creation of these new molecular paths is a phenomenon that scientists are well familiar with—especially cancer researchers, who have been developing solutions to abnormal kinase activity for decades. Currently, there are "dozens" of drugs and therapies designed to stop this hijacking in its tracks, meaning researchers have a roadmap for how to deal with kinase-dependent diseases, and a shortcut to identifying safe treatments that are likely to be approved for widespread use.

Though the researchers have not yet tested their theory in human subjects, they were "encouraged" by their findings that kinase inhibitors were effective at combating the spread of coronavirus in cell cultures. As they shared in a press release, these treatments "exhibited potent antiviral activity without being toxic to cells, suggesting that a combination 'cocktail' of these drugs could prove to be an effective way to treat COVID-19."

While the pandemic won't truly be "over" until an effective vaccine is available for widespread use, this would be a groundbreaking achievement that could save countless lives. Until then, we'll all need to do our part to stop the spread by socially distancing, washing our hands frequently, and wearing masks in public. And find out how you could be spreading COVID, even without any symptoms: This Is How Much Coronavirus You Could Be Spreading Without Knowing It.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
Filed Under