Understanding could boost effectiveness of future COVID-19 vaccine - Featuring Chuan He

Mar 24, 2020
By Louise Lerner

The COVID-19 virus is made out of RNA. Decoding how it actually functions is key to slowing or stopping the virus's path around the world

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Understanding could boost effectiveness of future COVID-19 vaccine - Featuring Chuan He

As scientists around the world race to decode the coronavirus that has caused more than 15,000 deaths in a matter of months, a group of University of Chicago chemists are focusing on understanding how the virus’s RNA works—which could translate to a more effective vaccine.

COVID-19, like many other viruses, is made solely out of RNA, the set of molecules that most of us remember learning in biology class as messengers that carry out instructions from DNA. But Prof. Chuan He opened a new field of biology nearly a decade ago by discovering the process is much more complex than that: messenger RNA is actually an active player that can be modified and unmodified in ways that can crucially affect cell function. 

As the coronavirus outbreak has progressed, He’s lab has turned its attention to decoding the role that RNA modifications play in COVID-19.

“We know that some RNA viruses are highly modified, including HIV and Zika, and that these are very important to the function of the virus,” said He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor at UChicago. “It’s possible the same is true for COVID-19.”

This information could be extremely valuable for understanding how the virus works, and especially so for making a more effective vaccine.

When researchers make a vaccine, one approach is to adapt the RNA sequence of the virus by chopping off the parts that are critical for viral infection. With its toxicity hampered, the virus can’t take hold easily, and the host’s immune system can use it to mount a response and gain immunity.  

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