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CLEVELAND (WJW) — Scientists at Case Western Reserve, Duke and Rutgers universities are working together to understand how the novel coronavirus’ tangled RNA could help treat infected people.

The group of scientists have identified compounds within the coronavirus genome that have the potential to block its ability to replicate, according to a CWRU news release.

The release explains that in order for a coronavirus to infect cells, it must break in, deliver its genetic instructions in the form of RNA, and hijack that cell’s molecular machinery to build new copies of itself, causing the infected cell to become a virus factory. It begins churning out the proteins needed for the virus to replicate and spread.

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Remdesivir and molnupiravir – the only antiviral drugs that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved or is considering for approval to protect against COVID-19 – work by binding to these proteins, according to CWRU.

But this team has taken a different approach. They say they’ve identified the first molecules that can take aim at the folds of RNA strands found in the complex 3D structure of the viral genome itself.

“We reasoned that the unique shape of the virus’s RNA genome presented an opportunity to target it with small molecules that might hold potential to slow the virus’s ability to spread,” said Blanton S. Tolbert, the Rudolph and Susan Rense Professor of Chemistry at Case Western Reserve, one of the researchers leading the project. “And the early results are encouraging.”

Amanda Hargrove, a chemistry professor at Duke University, said in a news release that the work offered an untapped therapeutic potential to fight COVID-19: “These are the first molecules with antiviral activity that target the virus’s RNA specifically, so it’s a totally new mechanism in that sense,” she said.

The group of scientists say that the discovery could lead to treatments for other future viruses and are already investigating potential drug candidates to fight another RNA virus—Enterovirus 71, a common cause of hand, foot and mouth disease in children.