They’re fighting coronavirus with a weapon I designed

Coronavirus. Here’s an image of the enemy. As this killer microbe spreads contagion worldwide, it’s heartening to know scientists are already fighting it with a molecular weapon I created a long time ago. Known to medical researchers by the obscure name “FLAG epitope tag,” it’s essentially a molecular handle they can attach to a virus to manipulate it at the atomic level, pulling it apart and putting it together again (in a biohazard containment facility of course) until they understand what makes it tick… and kill.

It turns out that scientists planted my FLAG on the surface of another member of the coronavirus clan, the SARS virus that caused a lethal epidemic in 2003. Attaching it to one of the protein subunits of the virus’s outer shell, they followed the life cycle as it infected human cells in culture flasks, and learned how that protein, ORF3, does its dirty work.

It seems that ORF3 pokes holes in cell membranes, letting water out as the virus compacts itself and takes on a spherical form as it exits one dying cell to find another victim to infect. The yellow highlight I marked on their summary below pinpoints the crucial role my invention played in their ground-breaking discovery.

I only wish I could say that their research has culminated in a cure, but that day has not arrived just yet. But it is surely coming. Now that scientists know ORF3’s function, they can begin to design drugs that target it, perhaps by plugging the holes it pokes in cells. And when that day comes, humanity will benefit immensely from a treatment now lacking. Many thousands of lives will be saved, thanks in part to a molecular tool I developed so long ago. Even though my career has been sidelined, I am heartened and more than a little humbled to see others still carrying on with my invention. Someday, not only the current COVID-19 coronavirus from Wuhan, but all its evil kin, will be annihilated by drugs targeting ORF3. Mankind will then be able to add coronavirus to the list of permanently defeated pathogens. Let’s all hope that day comes soon.

I’m retired now and my lab days are over, but my old heart is warmed by knowledge that others have taken work I started three decades ago in new directions I couldn’t have imagined when I first published the method (here’s a link to the original article).

May the day of coronavirus’s death come soon. And long live the FLAG!

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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