The Pride of Bristol: Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel interview with The Bristol Magazine
3 February 2021
Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel was recently interviewed by The Bristol Magazine about the ground-breaking discovery of a druggable pocket in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein that could be used to stop the virus from infecting human cells. This was discovered by an international team of scientists led by Prof Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel and Prof Imre Berger from the School of Biochemistry.
Prof Berger-Schaffitzel talks about what it has been like to work on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to make the discovery of a druggable pocket. "The lockdown in March lead us to pivot our activities to Covid-19 research. We assembled a team of very experienced postgraduates who volunteered to use our tools to dissect the SARS-CoV-2 virus. All of us were key workers and part of UNCOVER, University of Bristol’s Covid-19 emergency research group led by Adam Finn from Bristol Medical School. My husband’s team initially produced spike protein for vaccine development and to establish serology testing. Spike is the protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that mediates human cell infection. My team used cryo-electron microscopy to quality control the sample they produced, by determining its 3D structure.
"It was a unique experience. It felt surreal to walk to work through a deserted Clifton, meet the same few people in otherwise empty laboratories and return again at night through a ghost town. The work was extremely focused and intense. Some team members even spent the night in the laboratory occasionally.
"When we analysed the atomic structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike glycoprotein, we discovered a previously unknown pocket – a sort of molecular cave – within in the protein. To our surprise, inside of the pocket, we found a small molecule. It turned out that this small molecule was linoleic acid. With the help of Andrew Davidson, a renowned Bristol coronavirus expert, and his team, we could show that binding of linoleic acid to the spike protein blocks virus replication. Thus, unexpectedly, we discovered not only a druggable pocket in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, but also a potential drug, linoleic acid, in the pocket, which could be used as antiviral to protect us for infection by the virus.
Prof Berger-Schaffitzel explains that "Covid-19 has revolutionised how we publish research findings. We submitted our manuscript describing this work to Science, one of the leading and most respected journals for cutting-edge research. Usually, it takes several months until a manuscript is evaluated and, if deemed important enough, published and thus made available to the public. Now, in contrast, the editor of Science asked us upon submission to also alert the World Health Organisation and immediately make our discovery publicly available by uploading on a preprint server, accessible by everybody prior to peer-review. Today’s speed of research and information sharing is unprecedented."