The coronavirus pandemic has certainly wreaked havoc with people’s lives and the financial markets. While a vaccine for the virus may be many months away, existing innovations and technology are already helping scientists and pharmaceutical companies understand what this virus is and how it behaves.
Viruses are pathogens that were once known only to be small enough to pass through the smallest filters, filters that could capture bacteria. Today, not only can we sequence the virus – that is, read off the DNA or RNA that characterizes the virus — we can also see the structure of the virus using an electron microscope. These cutting-edge tools give us the ability to see that iconic “coronavirus” look (the now-familiar spikes).
These viruses are almost unfathomably small. A human hair, for example, is 75,000 nanometers wide. Coronaviruses measure about 120 nanometers – 625 times smaller than a human hair. That’s impossible to see on a traditional microscope, but the electron microscopes supplied by companies such as JEOL enable scientists and researchers to see what these viruses look like. JEOL’s advanced technology Cryo-Electron Microscopy allows researchers to see the individual proteins made up of amino acids, the building blocks that are used to replicate the virus.
We can use the metaphor of constructing a building to help visualize how viruses replicate. Viruses are basically strings of DNA or RNA, coated by a membrane made of proteins and lipids. DNA is the sequence of nucleic acids that contain the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all living organisms, in the same way that a blueprint contains the instructions needed to construct a building.
RNA molecules are involved in the synthesis of protein, more like the foundations and frame of the building. They also pull in the bricks (or in this case amino acids) to fill in the walls (that is, to form the proteins that make up the membrane and spikes, among other uses). In fact, the RNA also has frames to effectively make the construction workers and the tools, as well as the fully formed walls. What the RNA virus needs from the human cell are the amino acids, or the bricks.
A new therapy: RNA interference
A lot of already developed drugs are being tested to treat patients with COVID-19. Classic anti-virals, such as those used to treat HIV, delay the recruitment of the construction workers, or hide their tools, but the virus finds a way around these delays and becomes resistant to those tactics. A new therapeutic approach is called RNA interference (RNAi). As the name implies, this approach interferes with the RNA. RNAi is an RNA sequence that binds to the virus RNA and stops it from functioning. Thus, even if there are enough construction workers and tools in the cell, the foundations and the frame are unknown, and they have no idea what to build.
One company currently developing RNAi therapies is Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals. In a partnership with Johnson & Johnson, the company is testing a potential cure for hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is a DNA virus. As such, it has the blueprints from which to start, rather than the RNA. Under an electron microscope, we can see that hepatitis B looks like a coronavirus, with a membrane and outer spikes that attach themselves to the liver, in the same way the coronavirus does to the lungs.
There are two basic types of viruses: DNA viruses and RNA viruses. Genetic sequencing enables scientists and researchers to identify the chemical building blocks that make up each DNA or RNA virus. Once you identify the genetic sequence of a virus, you can develop a treatment to potentially interfere with its ability to replicate in the human body – that is, the complementary RNAi that will bind to the virus RNA and cover the foundation and the frames of the virus – and stop it from replicating itself.
When the AIDS virus broke out in the 1980s, scientists had none of the tools available today, and it took much longer to understand how the virus behaved. While a cure for the coronavirus may not be imminent, today’s technology is enabling researchers to understand it with a speed and level of accuracy that was impossible in years past.
China first noticed the outbreak of the coronavirus in mid-December and released the virus’s RNA sequence by mid-January. In France, scientists got samples from the first infected patients in that country on January 24 and had the coronavirus fully sequenced by January 30. That is remarkable speed, enabled by advances in sequencing over the past 20 years.
One company key to this advance is Illumina (ILMN US), which has developed machines that can read genetic sequences, so-called NextGen Sequencing, namely the next generation after polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which you may have heard about in relation to PCR testing. PCR testing is used to find signs of the virus in patients’ bodies. Illumina has greatly reduced the cost and time needed for genetic sequencing since the Human Genome Project announced it had fully sequenced the human genome code in 2003. Illumina provides the technology that enables researchers to fully understand the composition of viruses like the coronavirus.
We are long-term investors in areas of structural change across the world. In our view, the current situation with the COVID-19 virus is tragic from a human and health perspective, but temporary. Health care experts across the globe will figure out how to control it, how to treat it, and, eventually, how to prevent an outbreak like this from happening again. We’ve always invested in areas of the health care economy that are innovating and coming up with treatments for conditions that have long been a scourge on humanity. The current pandemic will accelerate the need for rapid, accurate genetic testing across a range of use cases, and we believe Invesco Oppenheimer Global Opportunities Fund is well-positioned to benefit from this acceleration.
As of 3/31/20, JEOL represented 1.13% of Invesco Oppenheimer Global Opportunities Fund’s holdings; Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals 1.59%; Illumina, 1.01%; and Johnson & Johnson & Johnson, 0.0%
The health care industry is subject to risk relating to government regulation, obsolescence caused by scientific advances and technological innovations.
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