Stopping a Viral Hijacker

Headshot of Blanton Tolbert
Blanton Tolbert

Blanton Tolbert, PhD, was primed to take aim when COVID-19 began spreading in early 2020.

The Case Western Reserve University chemistry professor was already investigating ways to stop a disease-causing RNA virus. Then came reports of the COVID-19 coronavirus, another RNA virus so named because it contains a ribonucleic acid strand as its genetic foundation.

Tolbert and colleagues at six other universities applied their know-how to that virus and published their innovative findings in November in the journal Science Advances.

“We found a new mechanism to slow the virus’s ability to spread by targeting its RNA,” said Tolbert, the Rudolph and Susan Rense Professor in chemistry and the School of Medicine’s vice dean of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The coronavirus advances in the human body by hijacking the molecular machinery in cells with RNA-delivered instructions to churn out proteins it needs to multiply.

While most antivirals bind to those proteins, the Tolbert team identified chemical compounds that instead latch onto the RNA strand, disrupting protein production before it begins.

Among the immediate next steps: further lab research to determine the effectiveness of this approach.