Indian-origin scientist creates first molecular structure of omicron protein

A researcher of Indian origin at the University of British Columbia (UBC) has produced the world’s first molecular-level structural analysis of the omicron variant spike protein.

The analysis, published in Science Journal and performed with near-atomic resolution using cryo-electron microscopy, shows how the highly mutated omicron variant attaches to and infects human cells.

“Understanding the molecular structure of the viral spike protein is important as it will allow us to develop more effective treatments against omicron and related variants in the future,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UBC.

“By analyzing the mechanisms by which the virus infects human cells, we can design better treatments that disrupt this process and neutralize the virus,” Subramaniam added.

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The spike protein, found on the outside of a coronavirus, allows SARS-CoV-2 to enter human cells.

The Omicron variant has an unprecedented 36 mutations on its spike protein – three to five times more than previous variants.

Structural analysis revealed that multiple mutations create new salt bridges and hydrogen bonds between the spike protein and the human cell receptor known as ACE2.

The new bonds appear to increase binding affinity — how tightly the virus binds to human cells.

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“The results show that Omicron has greater binding affinity than the original virus, with levels more comparable to what we’re seeing with the Delta variant,” Subramaniam said.

“It is remarkable that the Omicron variant has evolved to retain its ability to bind to human cells despite such extensive mutations.”

The omicron spike protein shows increased antibody evation.

Unlike previous variants, Omicron showed measurable evasion in all six monoclonal antibodies tested, with complete evasion in five.

The variant also showed increased evasion of antibodies collected from vaccinated individuals and unvaccinated Covid-19 patients.

“Remarkably, Omicron was less evasive of vaccine-induced immunity compared to immunity from natural infection in unvaccinated patients. This suggests that vaccination remains our best defense,” Subramaniam informed.

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