Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul







Molecular biology: understanding Covid-19 through research

Actions of PUCRS’ research centers have impacts on fight against new coronavirus

23/06/2020 - 13h53

Photo: BraIns/Release

Multidisciplinary work in health care is characterized by the joint efforts of people from different areas towards the same case. During the pandemic, more than 50 professionals and researchers have joined forces in a taskforce to fight Covid-19. One of the highlights of this group is the work carried out at the Center for Research in Cellular and Functional Biology (CPBMF), which has a major impact on different fronts in the containment of the new coronavirus.

According to Professor Dr. Cristiano Valim Bizarro, coordinator of the School of Health and Life Sciences’ Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology (PPGBCM), research is of critical importance in times like this. “Modern society relies on technologies that result directly from scientific advances. In the midst of a pandemic crisis, we need new drugs to treat patients and vaccines to prevent the spread of Covid-19 as soon as possible”, he says.

According to him, one of the priorities at the moment is to develop new diagnostic tests that are reliable, faster and less costly for the population to be tested. “In addition, decision making in public and private spheres is largely dependent upon research and science as new developments must be regularly updated”, he adds.

CPBMF’s seeks to conduct tests of antiviral compounds in SARS-CoV-2 virus cultures. That means we need to understand Covid-19 if we are to fight it. Find out about some of the initiatives:

Identification of possible drugs

Students from different laboratories decided to put in their efforts towards a greater good. Under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Celia Carlini, School Of Medicine Professor and researcher at Brain Institute of Rio Grande do Sul (BraIns), graduate students Matheus Grahl (PPGMCS) and Carlo Moro (PPGMCS), and Paula Caruso (PPGBCM), joined the group of students advised by Prof. Dr. Jaderson Costa da Costa, director of BraIns.

By conducting research in a controlled environment, students achieved positive results on the repositioning of drugs available on in the market, as they were able to identify possible therapeutic agents with antiviral action against the new coronavirus. “This initiative spearheaded by graduate students earned them a spot in the task force”, Celia says.

Molecular testing


Photo: Unplash

Within the task force, Grahl was invited to join the subgroup coordinated by Dr. Daniel Marinowic, Professor of PUCRS and researcher at São Lucas Hospital of PUCRS. The subgroup sought to innovate a molecular test for the detection of SARS-CoV-2. The project can further expand exam methodologies and improve the precision in the detection of the virus.

Artificial Intelligence to fight Covid-19 Professor Dr. Walter Filgueira, coordinator of the Structural Biochemistry Laboratory at PUCRS, is excited about Artificial Intelligence. “We want to contribute to the advancement of computational studies focused on target proteins for the discovery of potential drugs to treat Covid-19. Computational approaches will serve as the basis for machine learning models and predictions”, he explains.

The results obtained in controlled tests will be available to members of the laboratory network. With the help of PhD student Gabriela Bitencourt Ferreira (PPGBCM), this project consists of the following steps: target selection of SARS-CoV-2; designing of artificial intelligence models; and virtual search. The other steps will be carried out by different laboratories in the network.

The same virus, different results Prof. Dr. Florência Barbe Tuana, who also serves as a researcher at PPGBCM is very inquisitive about the virus. “Our group has experience in the field of immunology. More specifically, we work with inflammation mechanisms. One of the questions we asked ourselves is why some people have such a serious illness, while others have moderate or even no symptoms”, she wonders.

To answer this question, Florencia is looking at the communication between the cell types that are important in defending our body against SARS-CoV-2, macrophages and neutrophils. By understanding how the secretion of inflammatory mediators and their control pathways in the context of Covid-19, it is possible to elucidate the signaling mechanisms and suggest possible therapeutic targets.

Reference laboratory in Rio Grande do Sul

In addition, the CPBMF is cultivating an isolate of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, with the only laboratory in Rio Grande do Sul that is equipped with the required biosafety level (NB3) for studying the new coronavirus.

A platform is being built with compounds from a chemical library at the research center to fight the virus. Some of these compounds have shown promising results in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) and will be evaluated to fight the new coronavirus.

A network of researchers from different institutions in the state of Rio Grande do Sul has been assembled. Its members will use this platform to conduct new tests and develop different experimental and computational strategies.

Social impact of research

“Research, science and education aim to meet the expectations of the population and have a notorious social importance”, Matheus Grahl says. “Throughout history, scientific developments have proved essential for successful societies”, Carlo Moro adds. The way he sees it, this has become more evident in modern times, which is dependent upon technology. “This importance can sometimes go unnoticed by those who are not directly involved with science, but it is quite evident in times of crisis, such as pandemics,” he says.

For Cristiano Valim, it is gratifying to be able to contribute to this effort to fight the pandemic. “We are certainly experiencing the greatest health crisis in decades, and this demands a collective effort to find the solutions that are so necessary and desired by the whole of society,” he adds.

A major research center

Being awarded grade 6 by Capes (Brazilian Federal Agency for Evaluation and Support of Graduate Education) – in a scale that goes up to 7 -, the excellence of the Graduate Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology is internationally recognized. It trains qualified professionals to develop scientific, technological, educational and political projects associated with the study of cells and molecules, as well as the characterization and manipulation of cellular and molecular mechanisms for applied purposes.