University HealthCare Alliance

June 04, 2020

Stanford Biochemist Works with Gamers to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine

It seems like there’s no shortage of news about the novel coronavirus that is sweeping the globe. But if you’re like me, you’re paying special attention to any and all information about the race to develop a vaccine — a crucial step that will save lives and (hopefully) restore life back to something like pre-pandemic times.

Recently, Stanford biochemist Rhiju Das, PhD, joined the global effort to create a safe, widely available vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with a new project called OpenVaccine.

Das studies how string-like RNA molecules, which encode the genetic information needed to make proteins, fold into three-dimensional shapes to carry out biological functions within a cell. Currently, RNA molecules are being investigated as potential vaccines for several diseases — including COVID-19 — although none has yet been approved for use in humans.

An important stumbling block is the fact that RNA is not just flexible, but also extremely fragile. Under normal circumstances, these molecules rapidly degrade within a matter of minutes to hours. Das and his lab members — in collaboration with researchers from the laboratory of geneticist Maria Barna, PhD — hope to design a COVID-19 vaccine that can prime our immune systems to fight the virus, while also remaining stable enough to survive a journey to billions of people around the world.

Their efforts are highlighted in the recent NOVA special Decoding COVID-19.

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