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UD researchers seek to understand coronavirus

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UD professors Juan Perilla and Jodi Hadden are working to understand the coronavirus’s molecular composition and find its weaknesses. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UD/KATHY ATKINSON

NEWARKLike many, University of Delaware assistant professors Juan Perilla and Jodi Hadden-Perilla are working from home these days amid the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike nearly anyone else though, their work may help the world turn the tide in the fight against the challenging novel virus.

The husband-and-wife team, who are assistant professors in the University of Delaware’s Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and run independent labs on the campus, are no strangers to the study of viruses, having studied hepatitis B and HIV for more than a decade.

On March 23, the professors were approved for a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the molecular biology of SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the virus that causes COVID-19 and has has infected nearly 900,000 worldwide and killed nearly 45,000 as of Wednesday. The one-year grant was approved through the NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, which is only utilized in emergencies.

On Wednesday, Perilla told Delaware Business Times that their research won’t directly lead to the development of a vaccine, which requires researchers to find a way to get a person’s body to recognize the virus and attack it to prevent an infection. It is more likely to aid in the development of antiviral drugs, which can help kill the virus in an already infected person, he explained.

“We’re like step zero in the process,” he said. “If you know how any machine works, you have a better chance to know how to stop it.”

Perilla said that their research’s goal is to identify therapeutic targets, or weaknesses in the virus that scientists could tailor their treatments to exploit. By altering the chemistry and changing its physics, a treatment could stop the lifecycle of the virus.

The couple had already been considering studying the coronavirus in December, before the pandemic worsened around the world.

“We have a strong interest in in pathogens, so we started looking at the virus when it was in the news and we began working with our collaborators at national labs, looking at what was new about this virus compared to the SARS virus that came out in 2006,” he said.

It was when the American Physical Society’s March meeting in Denver, which attracts tens of thousands of scientists, was cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus that Perilla said he and his wife realized they needed to expedite their work.

“We were like, ‘OK, this is bigger than we thought it was going to be, so we should probably focus on trying to get more research out,’” he recalled.

They assembled what they had done to date and submitted an NSF grant application in less than a month. Perilla said that they had intended on applying for grant funding in 2021, because they were still collecting preliminary data from partners around the world.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CDC

“Because of the critical situation and the importance and the impact of the work, we decided to put other projects in the backseat and focus the efforts of our research groups in this project,” he said, estimating that their preliminary findings would likely come this summer.

Perilla and Hadden-Perilla are working with Tyler Reddy, a computational virologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, on the project, which has seven other researchers working on it. They are not the only research team in the U.S. studying the coronavirus on the molecular level. Perilla said that they are communicating with some of the others, while others are working independently in order to keep different perspectives on the research.

Currently the researchers are working seven days a week, meeting via videoconferencing to derive new analysis tools or software while remotely connecting to their UD labs or the Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where they run theoretical simulations of the virus.

Perilla explained that while researchers can easily obtain the DNA of the virus, their infinitesimal size make them impossible to observe and study. So, scientists rely on theoretical chemistry and physics to recreate models of the virus, building up millions of particles.

“A virus is not only the DNA, it’s a collection of other parts like protein, a membrane and RNA,” he said.

Although a simplistic organism in makeup, viruses are complex in how they operate, attacking only cells that it knows it can manipulate, Perilla said.

There are currently eight identified strains of SARS-CoV-2 around the world, but Perilla said that his research team is currently investigating one of them. Their experience in working with HIV, which also has many different strains, has shown that differences between strains are often subtle, and creating a final model of one strain allows them to detect the differences quicker, Perilla explained.

“It’s definitely better than starting from zero,” he added.

By Jacob Owens

[email protected]

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