Bright lights at Canadian synchrotron working to illuminate COVID-19’s scientific mysteries

Scientists at the University of Saskatchewan are using a light millions of times brighter than the sun to illuminate the answers to scientific mysteries hidden inside COVID-19. 

Crystalized proteins from the coronavirus that causes the illness are being examined using the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, which uses brilliant light to expose the structure of the virus at a molecular level.

“Understanding the behaviour of this virus … affects the policies around, for example, social distancing — how far we have to stay from each other, how should we talk, wearing a mask or not,” said Arash Panahifar, a scientist at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, or CLS, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

The CLS is a football field-sized facility that uses extremely bright light to peer inside matter. It is one of the world’s most powerful microscopes, shedding X-ray “light” millions of times brighter than the sun. 

Researchers across Canada have tasked the synchrotron with providing images they hope will help answer key questions about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, such as how it is transmitted through airborne droplets.

The synchrotron accelerates and bends beams of electrons to create a light so bright it can reveal details not otherwise able to be seen.   

Panahifar said the CLS is involved in a proposed project to help create a “movie” of water droplets as they travel in the air. 

It would use images taken at very high frame rates — one every few micro-seconds. 

The Canadian Light Source synchrotron is being used in numerous projects related to COVID-19. (Submitted by the University of Saskatchewan)

“You spray the water droplets, and by the help of this imaging, you see how far they travel,” said Panahifar.

By tracking the particles, researchers can see how their size changes over distance, he said.

To study the effect of the virus on the way those droplets behave, the scientists would put nanoparticles that mimic the size and shape of the virus into the droplets.  

Helping COVID-19 drug development in Canada

Joanne Lemieux, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Alberta, is using imaging from the CLS to assist the development of an anti-viral treatment for COVID-19. 

“We’re able to image how the drug sits in the active site pocket of the protein associated with COVID-19, and this allows us to see how the drug is working,” she said. 

She is involved with the development of an existing drug, originally developed by the Kansas State University to treat cats with a different form of coronavirus, for human use in treating COVID-19. 

“Now the drug is actually in the process of being assessed for clinical trials, it’s been tested in other animal models, and we’re continuing to work on this currently as a potential antiviral,” said Lemieux.

The CLS is creating three-dimensional imaging of molecular structures of the virus and drug proteins, which helps drug and vaccine developers understand the virus and how to target it.

An image of a COVID-19 protein known as the ‘main protease’ generated by CLS scientist Michel Fodje. The pink structures are a drug candidate molecule in the early stages of development. (Michel Fodje/University of Saskatchewan)

Lemieux’s drug focuses on a protein called the “protease” in COVID-19.

CLS senior scientist Michel Fodje has created three-dimensional modelling of the protease of COVID-19 using 900 images from the synchrotron.

“It is the main protein responsible for processing all the other proteins used to create new virus particles inside an infected cell,” said Fodje.

“Blocking this protein will stop the virus from proliferating. That is why researchers are interested in drugs that bind to it.” 

Location avoids border issues

The location of the Canadian Light Source also avoids issues that can arise when shipping samples across the border into the U.S. — which has been required in the past when the CLS was shut down for maintenance. 

The Canadian Light Source recently received almost $77 million in federal funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation Major Science Initiatives Fund.  

The technology is also being used to improve equipment, such as virus-testing devices, for COVID-19 front-line workers, along with studying the decomposition of N95 masks to improve decontamination and manufacturing practices. 

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