March 20, 2020

(Diamond) Light at the end of the tunnel

Diamond Light Source

Diamond Light's Life Sciences teams have been working around the clock to carry out vital measurements to help the global scientific efforts.

Shaped like a huge ring, the synchrotron works like a giant microscope, harnessing the power of electrons to produce bright light that scientists can use to study anything from fossils to jet engines to viruses and vaccines. The machine accelerates electrons to near light speeds so that they give off light 10 billion times brighter than the sun. These bright beams are then directed off into laboratories known as 'beamlines'. Here, scientists use the light to study a vast range of subject matter, from new medicines and treatments for disease to innovative engineering and cutting-edge technology. At the synchrotron, scientists can study their samples using a machine that is 10,000 times more powerful than a traditional microscope. Diamond is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities are helping to keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research.

Diamond Light Source Experimental Hall

Although the disease was only identified at the end of December 2019 and the first virus sequences determined in January this year, intense efforts by structural biologists, initially led by teams in China, have already produced a wealth of information, with structures available for several key targets. Most notably the viral main protease which is responsible for chopping the viral polyprotein into functional pieces and the characteristic Spike protein on the outside of the virus. The work has also fed into in vitro screening and ongoing clinical trials.

Over the past few weeks, following a request for support during a shutdown of the Shanghai synchrotron to Prof Dave Stuart, Life Sciences Director at Diamond from Zihe Rao, a leader in the Chinese efforts, key staff members across the business have been working around the clock to make targets and carry out measurements and analysis on non-infectious samples to support a global network of researchers in their efforts to identify effective therapies. The network includes numerous links with Oxford University Clinical Medicine, who have great strength in immunology and virology, international links with groups in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Israel and other countries as well as with our other client, Rosalind Franklin Institute, whose strength in protein and binder production has been invaluable.

Professor Andrew Harrison, CEO of Diamond Light Source, comments that, "As the UK's national synchrotron science facility at the forefront of world-changing scientific knowledge, Diamond is ensuring that it is doing everything possible to support researchers in their efforts to discover more about COVID-19. We normally submit all of our research to peer-review by scientific journals before it becomes publicly available. However, this process can take many months and would slow down the global efforts so we have made the decision to publish all results as soon as they become available. To date, in addition to identifying a more accurate structure from the Chinese work, 55 new binding targets have been identified using Diamond Light Source's Life Sciences capabilities and we have also just helped in the determination of a new structure which immediately suggests a potential mechanism of neutralisation for the virus.

"Specifically, in the area of drug discovery, synchrotron automation offered at Diamond has opened up ultra-high throughput screening methods like the Xchem fragment screening. Scientific research on the new SARS-CoV-2 is a global priority and we are doing everything we can to help advance work on this drug target, and on other proteins that represent potential weak points of the virus.  For this reason, we are not following the usual research pathway and waiting for the publication of papers about this research before releasing data. We are making results available and sharing information as early and as rapidly as possible to help inform the public health response and save lives".

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