PNNL scientist helps in fight against COVID-19 by searching for vulnerabilities in its structure

Garry Buchko demonstrates how to prepare a protein sample for NMR analysis.
Courtesy: Eric Francavilla, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Garry Buchko demonstrates how to prepare a protein sample for NMR analysis.

RICHLAND, Wash. — As the race to develop a vaccine continues, local scientists are on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist Garry Buchko is one of those researchers, partnering with scientists at the Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease (SSGCID).

Once the novel coronavirus was discovered, the first task for these scientists was to isolate the virus and sequence the RNA to discover its individual proteins – 27 of them to be exact. That effort started back in early January.

Now, they are working on ways to attack the key proteins and stop the virus from spreading.

“If we can find out ways to stop any of these 27 proteins from working or have something to stall their process that’ll be good,” said Buchko. “The trick is to find a drug or small molecule that will only target the virus’s proteins and not human proteins.”

The virus needs the proteins in order to replicate, and it’s in the process of replication that it destroys human cells.

Buchko is able to feed data they’ve collected into a computer program and create a 3D reconstruction of a protein, giving the scientists a better picture of what the structure looks like. That allows them to look for any especially vulnerable areas of the protein structure to potentially target.

For Buchko, the task at hand has meant many extra hours spent in the lab, but for him – it’s more of a hobby than a job.

“Science is always exciting…the idea that maybe some of the things we find over here might be one little thing that helps make a big breakthrough would be kind of cool,” he said. “The only caveat now is there’s a rush to do something.”