As the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues, work being supported by the Crystallization Center at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute (HWI) has delivered some encouraging results.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge and Argonne national laboratories looked at one of the proteins, or building blocks, that allows the virus that causes COVID-19 to reproduce. While most structural studies are performed at very cold temperatures, the researchers performed the first room-temperature X-ray measurements of the protein, using the Crystallization Center at HWI to grow the needed crystals. The results of the study are very important for drug and vaccine development.

HWI’s role in the study was supported by a $200,000 Rapid Response Research grant (RAPID) from the National Science Foundation awarded to Dr. Sarah Bowman, Director of the Crystallization Center, earlier this year. Structural biology, which is the foundation of HWI’s work, helps researchers understand fundamental principles of how biomolecules function by enabling visualization of those extremely small molecules at a high level of detail.

“We were happy to play a role in the initial steps,” Bowman said. “One of the bottleneck steps in the process of studying these proteins is coaxing them into a crystal form. That is what we specialize in at the Crystallization Center at HWI. The results from the Oak Ridge team on the structure of this protein, which is one of the major targets for drug discovery in the worldwide fight against COVID-19, are extraordinary.”

“To perform room temperature crystallography, we need large quality crystals that can only be grown if we find best crystallization conditions,” added Dr. Andrey Kovalevsky, a senior scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “The High Throughput Crystallization Center at HWI allowed us to very rapidly screen many non-redundant conditions to give crystal hits that we were able to optimize and to successfully grow good crystals.”

The HWI Crystallization Center is currently working on a number of other projects devoted to COVID-19. The Center provides state-of-the-art robotic equipment and specialized imaging to structural biology researchers worldwide who are studying the structure of the virus.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Center a $246,000 grant to support its ongoing operations and the services the Center provides for the study of many other diseases.

“Understanding and treating disease, whether the virus that causes COVID-19 or diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s, requires a visual understanding of what is happening inside the body at a molecular level, beyond what the human eye can see,” said Dr. Edward Snell, CEO, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. “HWI and our Crystallization Center, under Dr. Bowman’s leadership, bring that important understanding and create the needed visuals for research partners around the globe. This capability, with the important support of NIH, NSF, and others, positions HWI and Buffalo in a prominent place on the international research stage.”