Research Students at the University of Richmond Discover Possible Binding Site for Drugs to “Disrupt” COVID-19
By Madyson Fitzgerald
Three University of Richmond students are researching a potential binding site where drugs could be tested in order to stop COVID-19 from attaching to human cells.
Using computational chemistry, sophomores Camryn Carter and Haley Gladden, along with their research assistant and recent graduate Justin Airas, are testing multiple drugs that could serve as treatments to COVID-19.
By using computational chemistry, Airas said they are solving much of the problems they seek on computers. He also said it gets things done much faster without the hassle of chemicals and other physical materials. “All you really need is just a file online that you can download,” Airas said, “and as long as that’s there, you can immediately start getting to work.”
Their work: testing multiple drugs against a binding site that Airas had found earlier on.
Gladden explained that a binding site was basically the area where the COVID-19 spike and the human cell connected. Together, they create a pocket that acts as the binding site. “We kind of started out with thinking that if we could run a bunch of drugs against the binding site that Justin found, we could possibly disrupt that binding site so that SARS-CoV-2 couldn’t bind to the human cell,” Gladden said.
Once the binding site was located, they could go ahead and get to work. “So far, it’s mostly been proof of concept,” Gladden continued. “A lot of it was just figuring out how to go about proving the binding site was actually a good idea for drugs. Later, we started running some drugs up against it, which now we’re in the process of analyzing that data.”
The process seemed simple at first, but summer presented its own challenges. Between going home early in March and coming back under new restrictions in the fall, many of the team’s key resources were unavailable for a time. This, Gladden said, actually helped them with their problem-solving skills.
As the team analyzes this new information, they are keeping an eye out for a drug that could successfully stop SARS-CoV-2 from establishing a connection with the human cell via the binding site.
It is their hope that this would offer a new treatment option in the fight against the coronavirus. “We would hope that this would offer a new treatment route essentially,” Airas said. “Rather than the things that are being currently explored, we’re looking at something that’s very different from a lot of other research being done in the field.”
In doing this, the team hopes to create a treatment that is more affordable for the general public. As a healthcare studies and biology double-major on the pre-
medical track, Gladden said that their aim is for affordability, which is why they are testing more commonly used drugs.
“Affordability is a big issue and you need to grant more access to the drug in order for it to actually flatten the curve and deal with all these issues that have come up with the pandemic,” Gladden explained. “It’s definitely a huge preventative health issue right now.”
According to Carter, their research project has genuinely opened their eyes to the reality of the pandemic. “I didn’t know that much about the pandemic or the virus until I was doing research on it,” she said.
Carter, a computer science major and Bonner Scholar, spent the summer blogging about the effects of the virus and the pandemic on everyday life. This, in
addition to the research she’s doing now, has shaped her perspective on the pandemic.
“So it’s been a full circle of looking at this from a science perspective and then actually living through the pandemic,” Carter said. “It’s just made it seem like our research is just really important.”
This research is especially important in regard to recent headlines revealing that the United States is the first country to record 100,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day. As the situation becomes more dire, the desperation for a cure worsens.
“We’ve all seen the headlines with everything going on lately, and I feel like working on this, especially now, it’s given us an opportunity to do our part in making the world a better place,” Airas said. “Early on, it just felt so helpless seeing everything that’s been going on, but this offers us an excellent opportunity to actually do something to contribute.”