From Viral Outbreak to Vaccine Development: Our Top 10 Most Viewed Blog Posts of 2020

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Photo Credit:  Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM CDC It is one is used in several of our top 10 most viewed blogs of 2020
Illustration from CDC; Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

When you look at our top 10 most viewed blog posts of 2020, there’s no surprise that all relate to COVID-19. We have come a long way since the beginning of the year, thanks to tireless scientists and researchers around the globe. They have led the way in COVID-19 research, treatment, and testing. Let’s take a closer look at this top 10 list:

10. Tips to Maintain Physical Distance in the Lab 

The spread of COVID-19 forced us to adapt and adjust to new ways in life, in work, and for this blog post, in the lab. In response to the pandemic, some labs shut down completely. Others have stayed open, especially those involving coronavirus research. This post provides 10 helpful distancing tips for researchers to stay safe and productive while working in the lab.  

9. Investigation of Remdesivir as a Possible Treatment for SARS-2-CoV (2019 nCoV) 

Scientists have worked hard to determine possible treatment for COVID-19. This blog post focuses on Remdesivir (RDV or GS-5734), an encouraging treatment used for the first case in the United States. It provides an in-depth look at numerous studies and clinical trials on Remdesivir as treatment for COVID-19. One key finding is that RDV needed to be administered either before or shortly after infection to limit lung damage. 

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Adenoviral Vector Vaccines for COVID-19: A New Hope?

The global war against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 rages on, spearheaded by efforts to develop effective and safe vaccines. At the time of writing, over 100 COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials were listed in the clinicaltrials.gov database. Recent attention has focused on mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. If licensed, they would become the first mRNA vaccines for human use.

Other vaccine development efforts are relying on more conventional techniques—using an adenoviral vector to deliver a DNA molecule that encodes the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein. Examples of these adenoviral vector vaccines include the vaccines from Oxford University/AstraZeneca (the UK), Cansino Biologics (China), Sputnik V (Russia) and Janssen Pharmaceuticals/Johnson & Johnson (the Netherlands and USA).

sars-cov-2 coronavirus covid-19 infection with antibodies from a vaccine attacking the virus; several vaccines are in development including adenoviral vector vaccines
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Automation Helps A Graduate Student Monitor COVID-19 With Wastewater

Kasia Slipko (middle) and her lab at Vienna University of Technology. She and colleagues are exploring using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks.
Kasia Slipko (middle) and her lab at Vienna University of Technology. She and colleagues are exploring using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks.

When Kasia Slipko started graduate school at Vienna University of Technology, Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management, she was interested in studying antibiotic resistant microbes in wastewater. For three years, she evaluated different wastewater treatment methods to find out how to remove antibiotic resistant bacteria. But in the spring of 2020, her research took an unexpected turn. That was when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, caused by the rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Kasia soon found herself at the forefront of another exciting field: using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks.

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Adapting Holiday Traditions: COVID, Customs and Cookies at Promega

Adaptation: In biology and ecology, the process or state of adjusting or changing to become more suited to an environment.    

Holiday traditions are certainly taking new forms this year as we all determine how to safely celebrate during a pandemic. It goes without saying that it’s been a tough year. Customs and rituals, large and small, bring peace and comfort. We need those more than ever now, so the challenge becomes finding new ways to honor valued traditions.

Chuck York, VP Manufacturing delivers individually packaged cookies to R&D Scientists on the Promega Madison Campus, adapting this holiday tradition to the life during a pandemic.
This year’s cookie delivery happened with a twist. Chuck York, VP Manufacturing delivers individually packaged cookies to R&D Scientists on the Promega Madison Campus.

Today, we would like to share how one dearly held Promega Madison tradition was able to endure in our COVID-19 world. Adaptation is key. And butter and sugar help, too.

Elaine Day

Promega employees this week were surprised and deeply moved to find that their beloved “Elaine Day” had not become yet another casualty of the pandemic.

“This has been such a difficult year,” says Senior QA Scientist Sue Wigdal. “I had assumed, sadly, that Elaine Day would be cancelled, but to be able to have it and all the thoughtfulness and deliciousness that it brings, was amazing.”  

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SARS-CoV-2 Nucleocapsid Protein and PA28γ: A Role in Pathogenesis?

The SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein accounts for the largest proportion of viral structural proteins and is the most abundant protein in infected cells. Nucleocapsid proteins have the job of “packaging” the viral nucleic acid (in this case, RNA). Viral nucleocapsid proteins can also enter the host nucleus and interact with a variety of host proteins to interfere with critical processes of the host cell, including protein degradation. Here we review a study that used an in vitro protein degradation assay to investigate the interaction of the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein and the proteasome activator PA28γ.

SARS-CoV-2 structural diagram, showing the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein composed of RNA and N protein.

In SARS-CoV-2 infections, the nucleocapsid protein is critical for infection, replication and packaging. The SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein is not only localized in the cytosol of the host cell but also is translocated into the nucleus. There, it interacts with various cellular proteins that modulate cellular functions, such as the degradation of unneeded or damaged proteins by proteolysis. Researchers have proposed that the protein degradation system plays an important part in coronavirus infection (1).

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Non-Respiratory Symptoms of COVID-19

The truth is that much of what we were told in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was not entirely accurate. Many of the messages in the United States and other countries implied that the disease was “mild” for anyone who was not elderly or did not have a pre-existing respiratory condition. We were told the main symptoms were fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. It would be like a bad cold.

None of that is false. Data still shows that elderly individuals and those with pre-existing conditions are the most likely to experience severe disease. However, over the past few months we have seen how the SARS-CoV-2 virus can present serious complications in almost every organ system, and how its effects aren’t limited to the most vulnerable populations. We have also seen a growing number of cases where individuals are still experiencing life-altering symptoms for months after their supposed recovery.

To gain a full understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, we have to explore every system in the body and track down the causes of all the unexpected clinical presentations of the disease.  

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mRNA Vaccines for COVID-19: The Promise and Pitfalls

Multiple battles are being fought in the war against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Currently, there are nearly 3,000 clinical trials listed in the World Health Organization (WHO) database, either underway or in the recruiting stage, for vaccines and antiviral drugs. Two recent announcements of data from phase 3 vaccine trials, by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, have offered some hope for global efforts to fight the pandemic. At the time of writing, Pfizer and BioNTech had submitted an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Moderna had planned to do so shortly.

mrna vaccines and coronavirus covid-19

Both vaccines are mRNA-based, as opposed to most conventional vaccines against established diseases that are protein-based. Typically, the key ingredient in viral vaccines is either part of an inactivated virus, or one or more expressed proteins (antigens) that are a part of the virus. These protein antigens are responsible for eliciting an immune response that will fight future infection by the actual virus. Another approach is to use a replication-deficient viral vector (such as adenovirus) to deliver the gene encoding the antigen into human cells. This method was used for the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University in collaboration with AstraZeneca; phase 3 interim data were announced on the heels of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna announcements. All three vaccines target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, because it is the key that unlocks a path of entry into the host cell.

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Mass Spec for Glycosylation Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 Proteins Implicated in Host-Cell Entry

The spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a very commonly researched target in COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutic studies because it is an integral part of host cell entry through interactions between the S1 subunit of the spike protein with the ACE2 protein on the target cell surface. Viral proteins important in host cell entry are typically highly glycosylated. Looking at the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, researchers predict that the spike protein is highly glycosylated. In a recent study, researchers conducted a glycosylation analysis of SARS-CoV-2 proteins using mass spec analysis to determine the N-glycosylation profile of the subunits that make up the spike protein.

3d model of coronavirus covid-19 showing the spike protein. A recent study performed a glycosylation analysis of SARS-CoV-2 protein.

Glycans assist in protein folding and help the virus avoid immune recognition by the host. Glycosylation can also have an impact on the antigenicity of the virus, as well as potential effects on vaccine safety and efficacy. Mass spectrometry is widely used for viral characterization studies of influenza viruses. Specifically, mass spec has been used to study influenza protein glycosylation, antigen quantification, and determination of vaccine potency.

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Young Scientist Discovers Potential Anti-SARS-CoV-2 Drug Molecule

3d model of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2

14-year-old Anika Chebrolu spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic identifying a potential anti-SARS-CoV-2 drug candidate. Originally, she was screening potential anti-influenza treatments, but as she watched COVID-19 case numbers rising around the world, she pivoted to focus instead on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several months later, Anika not only discovered a strong candidate for further testing, but she earned the title of 2020 Top Young Scientist in a competition sponsored by 3M.

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Beyond the Lab Bench: Personal Connection and Experience Drive Creativity in Serology Assay Development

This post is written by guest blogger, Melanie Dart, PhD, Sr. Research Scientist at Promega.

Melanie Dart, PhD.

Along with lockdowns and sheltering in place efforts, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a unique challenge to our doorstep this spring: developing a clinical serological test for COVID-19 to detect the presence of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The project was one of the fastest, most dynamic development efforts ever undertaken at Promega. In general, in vitro diagnostic (IVD) tests take at least one to two years to develop. Nothing about 2020, however, has been typical.

It was important to move quickly. We set an aggressive timeline, and to meet it we needed not only dedication of our internal team, but also contributions from the local community.

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