Toronto biotech startup plays role in “critical breakthrough” in coronavirus research

Toronto-based Structura Biotechnology, which develops machine learning algorithms and scientific software for biology research and drug discovery, has developed a tool that is playing a key role in a “critical breakthrough” in the search for a vaccine for coronavirus, according to U of T News.

The researchers claim they have created the first 3D, atomic scale map of the coronavirus spike protein.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) are relying on Structura Biotechnology’s cryoSPARC platform, which is used to conduct analysis for cryo-EM data and 3D reconstruction and offers proprietary algorithms for membrane proteins, ion channels, G-protein-coupled receptors, and drug targets.

Structura Biotechnology, which spun out of a University of Toronto research project, is leveraging algorithms and software to help scale the structural biology technique of crypto-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Cryo-EM allows scientists to obtain high-resolution pictures of proteins by shooting electrons at frozen samples. Structura Biotechnology’s cryoSPARC tool comes into play by combining computer vision and machine learning to help scientists piece together two-dimensional images into a 3D model revealing its shape and structure to better understand how a protein works at the molecular level.

Jason McLellan, an associate professor in molecular biosciences at UT Austin and a co-author of the coronavirus research study, said cryoSPARC has allowed his team to process data while travelling. Researchers were able to go from a raw sample to producing an atomic scale map of the protein and submitting a manuscript to a science journal in just 12 days.

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The researchers claim they have created the first 3D, atomic scale map of the coronavirus spike protein, which is the part of the coronavirus that attaches to and infects human cells. The researchers are using cryoSPARC to process data of the coronavirus spike protein, and obtain accurate 3D images of the spike in real time.

The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, a global public health emergency. There have been more than 76,000 confirmed cases and over 2,200 deaths to date. As of February 25, 2020, 11 cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in Canada, with three in Ontario and six in British Columbia. Far more Canadians are affected by the virus outside of Canada, with an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that saw at least 47 Canadians infected.

“The work by UT Austin and the NIH demonstrates the power of structural biology,” said Ali Punjani, the CEO and co-founder of Structura Biotechnology. “We can actually look at a new disease that was discovered just a couple of months ago and see how it works at the molecular level. It’s very exciting.”

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Structura Biotechnology is developing a way for academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies to recover 3D protein structures, with the goal of taking some of the guesswork out of drug discovery. According to Punjani, research labs around the globe are leveraging Structura Biotechnology’s software cryoSPARC to determine 3D structures of proteins and other biological molecules for life sciences and drug discovery.

Punjani told U of T News that the company’s technology is used by 400 institutions globally, including at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hospital for Sick Children and other structural biology labs. Structura Biotechnology currently has seven full-time staff and plans to hire additional employees in software engineering, machine learning research and development, and sales.

Image source U of T News

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi is a staff writer and content creator at BetaKit with a strong interest in Canadian startup, business, and legal tech news. In her free time, Amira indulges in baking desserts, working out, and watching legal shows.