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Data scientists ID potential vulnerabilities in the COVID-19 virus

Miroscopic image of the coronavirus
An image of the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

DALLAS – Feb. 17, 2020 – UT Southwestern Medical Center data scientists analyzing genetic sequences of the COVID-19 coronavirus have identified potential vulnerabilities that could help in vaccine development and further study of the infectious disease now spreading worldwide.

Specifically, the researchers point to areas where the viral genome encodes T cell and B cell antigens that could stimulate a response from the human immune system. They then compared those against the immunological maps of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) gathered in those coronavirus outbreaks. The resulting analysis was posted to the bioRxiv preprint server this week prior to peer review.

“Few studies have reported on the immunological features of this new coronavirus. Our analyses in this respect could serve as a reference resource for immunological studies and for potential therapeutics and vaccine development,” says Yang Xie, Ph.D., director of the Quantitative Biomedical Research Center (QBRC) and a professor of population and data sciences and in the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics. Scientists in China made the virus sequences available in January.

“Although mutations in this virus’ genome are still very limited, they locate in genomic regions whose homologous counterparts in SARS and MERS are proved to be highly mutated, indicating these regions are potential mutation hot spots to watch out for,” says Tao Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of population and data sciences and an investigator in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense, who co-led the study with Xie. Immunologists and vaccine designs should take these into consideration, as mutations will significantly affect the potential of the viral proteins to stimulate the immune system, the authors say.

Related research projects:

  • The QBRC scientists also created a publicly available web browser with an immune vulnerability map of the COVID-19 virus to facilitate study of the disease by research groups worldwide.
  • John Schoggins, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology, is studying how mammals – including humans, mice, and bats – control viral infections. Bats can harbor numerous viruses without becoming sick. Schoggins (pronounced sk-ah-gins) is exploring whether the bat immune system contributes to their being asymptomatic viral reservoirs. His work on immune responses centers primarily on a signaling molecule – interferon – that “calls in the cavalry” to help cells mount their antiviral defenses and block the infection. This “cavalry” consists of hundreds of interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs), each with specialized functions tailored to cripple viruses in very unique ways. The Schoggins lab has pioneered various screening platforms, including CRISPR screens, to rapidly screen hundreds of ISGs for antiviral activity targeting a diverse panel of human viruses, including emerging viruses like coronavirus and Zika virus. J Immunol. 2018 Jan 1;200(1):209-217.

UT Southwestern has resources in infectious disease, quantitative biomedical research, microbiology, and virology available for media reporting on the newly identified coronavirus. To set up an interview, please contact us at or (214) 648-3404.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.