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Scientists uncover antiviral protein that blocks coronavirus infection

Long before “coronavirus” became a household name, scientists were searching for ways to combat this family of viruses, known to cause the common cold and several more-severe illnesses. Now, a study identifies a protein that blocks infection by SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, along with several other types.

The protein, known as LY6E, stops the virus from fusing with host cells. Researchers in the lab of Rockefeller’s Charles M. Rice, along with collaborators at UT Southwestern and the University of Bern in Switzerland, first identified it years ago in a genetic screen. Their study in Nature Microbiology shows that it inhibits the coronaviruses responsible for the outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012. They also extended their findings to SARS-CoV-2, finding that LY6E can block infection by this virus, as well.

Working in a mouse coronavirus model, the researchers were also able to tease apart the protein’s role in disease. They found that it is vital for protecting immune cells from infection—without it, these cells decrease in number, making it harder for the immune system to fight off the virus.

The researchers hope their findings will lead to new treatment strategies against COVID-19 as well as other diseases that have yet to arise. “Exploiting how LY6E works could help us better prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks, which are bound to happen,” says Rice.