Image by C. Barnes / Björkman laboratory

Scientists armed with an electron microscope managed to catch the first real glimpse of antibodies attacking the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes the pandemic-causing COVID-19.

The antibodies, which are foot-soldier proteins produced by the immune system, came from blood samples of recovered patients. By pitting those antibodies against samples of the virus and watching them fight, the California Institute of Technology researchers behind the work believe they’ve identified some of the coronavirus’ weak points. They say that their work, which was published last month in the journal Cell, could help scientists develop new treatments or more effective vaccines.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time a team has imaged a mixture of antibodies purified from human blood after a viral infection to visualize the targets of those antibodies circulating in the recovered individual,” CalTech biological engineer Christopher Barnes said in a press release.

Case in point: During the project, the team found one type of antibody that was particularly effective at neutralizing the coronavirus and blocking it from binding to and infecting a new cell.

In theory, scientists could try to develop vaccines that produce that kind of antibody, or concoct antibody therapies that target the virus in the same way.

“One thing that’s particularly interesting about Christopher’s structure is that it shows that the antibody, although strongly neutralizing, did not evolve for optimal binding to the SARS-CoV-2 S protein,” Pamela Björkman, head of the CalTech lab, said in the release. “This suggests that these types of antibodies might not be hard to induce in a person’s body by a vaccine. In addition, it suggests that it should be possible to use protein-engineering techniques to improve such antibodies for use as therapeutics.”


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READ MORE: Images of antibodies as they neutralize the COVID-19 virus [California Institute of Technology]