ITHACA, N.Y. –– The Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) lab will partially restart operations in June to conduct research related to treatment of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Led by Richard Cerione, the research effort focuses on cancer-fighting enzyme blockers, which have potential as SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors. Cerione said cancer cells, when they mutate from normal cells, require specific metabolic enzymes –– similar to those needed by viruses to infect healthy cells.

“It struck me, the similarities between how cancer cells continue to evolve and become malignant… and what virus infected cells start to become. They share the vulnerabilities in terms of many of the metabolic activities, so it started to occur to us that the same drug candidates that we’d be developing for some time to target cancer cells…we could use to target virus-infected cells”

The experiments will take place at the X-ray crystallography beamline of CHESS. X-ray crystallography is an experimental science that can determine atomic and molecular structures of a protein. The process will help determine the virus protein structures and how those structures change and interact with drugs –– informing researchers about drug potency, dosages and reliability.

“When a virus infects a cell, it basically has to usurp, or take over the cellular machinery to make more viruses,” Cerione said. “We want to be able to target the proteins that viruses need just like cancer cells to take over the machinery. If we can target those activities, those proteins, with the right drugs the virus can’t take over the host cell.”

Joel Brock, director of CHESS, said safety will be a top priority.

“We are practicing strict distancing protocols and other measures,” he said. “It will definitely take us longer [than usual] to prepare for the experiment, but being able to restart the machine in order to research a potential drug for COVID-19 is extremely exciting.”

Cerione said no live or infectious cultures of COVID-19 will be involved in his research. He also said the results his team can achieve at CHESS will help scientists prepare for infectious diseases experts think could be just over the horizon.

“This isn’t going to be the end, there’s going to be another wave, there’s going to be other viruses –– and so for us, a lot of what we’ve been doing in our laboratory for the last 10 years…we can see how we can turn it towards actually addressing very similar questions, using very similar approaches against virus infection,” Cerione said. “But we need that structural information that we can get at CHESS to be able to help us design better drugs”

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com