Coronavirus research breakthrough has Toronto roots

February 25, 2020

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

A recent breakthrough in the global search for a vaccine to the coronavirus has roots in Toronto. 

On February 15th, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health published the high resolution 3D molecular structure of the spike protein of 2019-nCoV, commonly known as the coronavirus. The breakthrough, later published in Science, is essentially the “first 3D atomic scale map of the part of the virus that attaches to and infects human cells,” an essential step towards developing vaccines and antiviral drugs. 

The 3D mapping was made possible by a software package called CryoSPARC, which was built using algorithms developed by University of Toronto (UofT) PhD student Ali Punjani, UofT MSc student Haowei Zhang, former UofT student Marcus Brubaker, now an assistant professor at York University, and Vector Faculty Member and Canada CIFAR AI Chair David Fleet.

“The algorithms combine ideas from computer vision, image processing, and machine learning, says Fleet. “They enable one to infer the 3D electron density from a large set of images of the protein obtained from a transmission electron microscope.”

Punjani co-founded the startup Structura Biotechnology to market CryoSPARC as a way to help remove much of the guesswork behind drug discovery. Structura also offers the program free for academics in order to support structural biology research. 


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