Overcoming the Corona Crisis Together
SARS-CoV-2 is presenting society and individuals with enormous challenges. Just like many other scientists within the Helmholtz Association and around the world, scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich are doing their part to investigate the novel coronavirus.
For instance, Jülich scientists are developing mathematical models to assess the development of the coronavirus outbreak in Germany. These models can be used to simulate the effect of measures intended to prevent the spread of the virus. In addition, they are providing the research community with infrastructure for tasks such as the computer-aided simulation of the effectiveness of potential drugs, and are also developing individual drug candidates themselves. By investigating the effects of COVID-19 on our sense of taste and smell, Jülich scientists are also contributing to research concerning the course of the disease.
This page provides an overview of the ways in which Jülich scientists are working to overcome the coronavirus crisis. First, some of the scientists involved describe their efforts in a series of interviews. Further down, all of the relevant projects are described in detail.
Vaccine development, drug research, and drug screening
Viruses find their way into the cell via specific receptor proteins to which they dock (lock-and-key principle). Jülich researchers from Structural Biochemistry (IBI-7) are developing a molecule that specifically binds to the same receptor and therefore competes with viruses. This can prevent the viruses from entering the cells. The same molecule will also be used as a probe in a rapid virus test that is currently being developed. In addition, the structural biologists are trying to decipher the 3D structure of other viral proteins (ORF8, ORF7a, ORF3a, M, and E) and investigate how these proteins can be inhibited so that the virus can no longer reproduce. A third project is investigating how an important viral enzyme (main protease) that is essential for the virus to reproduce can be inhibited. For this purpose, extensive computer-based screening has already been carried out at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre. Promising drug candidates are currently being tested biochemically in terms of their effectiveness. Together with other medical and chemical as well as structural biology working groups at additional institutes of the Helmholtz Association, IBI-7 is involved in establishing a Helmholtz-wide platform for structure-based drug research to be better prepared for future pandemics. In addition, the Jülich Supercomputing Centre together with other Gauss partners are providing the research community with computer resources, for example to simulate the effect of potential treatments.
Prof. Dieter Willbold
Tel: +49 2461 61-2100
Infection spread in the population
Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the main focus has been on the effective reproduction number (R-value). In the USA, a website was launched in April, providing the general public with up-to-date R-value estimates for all US states every day. Jülich biotechnologists from the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences contributed their expertise to the American website, which was established by the Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Systrom asked Jülich scientists for their support since they, like the American website, develop and use the Python software package “PyMC3” for statistical modelling and the development of bioproduction processes. From a mathematical perspective, there isn’t a big difference between analysing microbial growth experiments and analysing epidemiological data. On the website https://rtlive.de/ the Jülich researchers now also provide daily forecasts of the R value for the German federal states, which are based on data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).
Tel: +49 2461 61-3962
Tel: +49 2461 61-8646
Quantum cloud access for response to COVID-19
Forschungszentrum Jülich, together with several other international research institutions and companies, has joined an initiative led by Canadian quantum computing company D-Wave Systems Inc. that aims to support researchers in developing solutions to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Through this initiative, D-Wave is providing users who are conducting research on COVID-19 with free access to its quantum computing systems.
Prof. Kristel Michielsen
Tel: +49 2461 61-2524
Research into taste and smell disorders in connection with COVID-19
The Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research (GCCR), which was co-founded by Dr. Kathrin Ohla, is investigating the connection of taste and smell disorders with COVID-19. “The first online survey with over 50,000 participants showed that the sudden loss of smell or taste can distinguish an infection with the novel coronavirus from other respiratory illnesses,” says Kathrin Ohla from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine. The online survey is available in 32 languages.
In addition, the researchers have developed a smell check, enabling those who are interested to test and train their senses and to observe them over time. The consortium currently has 592 members from 59 countries.
Dr. Kathrin Ohla
Tel: +49 2461 61-4548
Research with neutrons for better mRNA vaccines
mRNA vaccines are a new class of vaccines, which includes the first COVID-19 vaccine approved within the EU produced by the biotechnology company BioNTech. In the development of vaccines, the company collaborates with partners including the Jülich Centre for Neutron Science (JCNS). Experiments are being conducted on a neutron scattering instrument operated by the JCNS at the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Zentrum in Garching.
mRNA (short for “messenger RNA”) acts in human cells as a blueprint for the synthesis of protein molecules. BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine contains mRNA that codes the blueprint of the spike protein. The virus uses the spike protein to dock onto human cells. The vaccinated cells produce the coded protein for a short period of time until the mRNA has been naturally degraded, and then release it. This way, the immune system is trained to react to the foreign protein.
If the mRNA were injected directly into the body, it would be degraded in the tissue by ubiquitous enzymes even before it could be incorporated by cells. To protect this valuable cargo from damage, it is usually wrapped in tiny particles, called nanoparticles. They are able to fuse to the cell membrane, releasing mRNA into the interior of the cell.
Using neutron scattering at the JCNS, the researchers have investigated various new approaches for wrapping and implanting the mRNA. Investigations showed that hybrid nanoparticles that are designed in a suitable way and contain both lipids and polymers were more efficient at transporting their content into cells than pure lipid or pure polymer nanoparticles. Investigations on a model system using the dextran carbohydrate as a “packaging material” showed the influence of the volume ratio between mRNA and cladding material on the efficiency.
Such findings are possible because neutron scattering renders it feasible to selectively highlight parts of a complex multi-component morphology by replacing hydrogen with heavy hydrogen without changing the physical chemistry of the sample.
Dr. Aurel Radulescu
Telefon: +49 89 289-10712
Quick access to measurements with neutrons for coronavirus research
In view of the coronavirus pandemic, the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Zentrum (MLZ) offers separate access to measurements with neutrons that could yield important insights into the behaviour of the virus. At the MLZ, the Jülich Centre for Neutron Science operates neutron scattering instruments that can be used to study the structure and dynamics of biological samples – in some cases in close cooperation with partners.
Scientists who would like to use neutrons to conduct research into the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 or the COVID-19 disease are granted separate and privileged access. They do not have to apply for measuring time in the usual way. Visiting scientists should contact the User Office to apply for measuring time. A scientific assessment of the application for measuring time will be carried out as soon as possible.
Click here for further information on the actions of other members of the League of advanced European Neutron Sources (LENS) regarding special access channels for SARS-CoV-2 researchers.
Prof. Dr. Stephan Förster
Tel.: +49 2461 61-85161
Learning from the crisis: Peak season for climate researchers
Jülich atmospheric researchers have seized an opportunity and launched extensive measurement campaigns to record changes in air quality during the lockdown in spring and also in the period that followed. Two weather balloons equipped with Jülich instruments were released, which floated at a height of around 29 kilometres. A Zeppelin NT equipped with Jülich high-tech instruments was used for the near-surface measurements at a height between 200 and 1,000 metres as well as the Jülich MOBILAB measurement vehicle, which collected comparative samples on the ground. The campaigns recorded values for a variety of trace gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, CO2, CFCs, methane, water vapour, ozone, and the particulate matter content of the different atmospheric layers. Initial results show that the lockdown had no major influence on the CO2 content in the upper troposphere and stratosphere at roughly 15 kilometres in altitude. “We have been pumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air for over 200 years – you cannot expect that to become significantly less or even disappear in a few weeks,” says Dr. Johannes Laube from the Institute of Energy and Climate Research. Further measurements and the evaluation of all data are currently underway. The results are incorporated into several climate models to bridge knowledge gaps and, for example, to predict the effects of a profound transformation of the transport sector on air quality in different regions.
Prof. Astrid Kiendler-Scharr
Tel.: +49 2461 61-4185
Dr. Johannes Laube
Tel.: +49 2461 61-6524
Dr. Christian Rolf
Tel.: +49 2461 61-6933
Interview with Jülich experts
“We Have to Be Cautious in Moving Forward”
The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Helmholtz Association recently issued statements evaluating the current situation and giving recommendations for how to proceed. Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich and co-author of both statements, comments on the outlined strategies and their relation to each other in the following interview.
“We Cannot Abandon Anyone”
The coronavirus crisis has posed previously unheard of challenges for our society and at the same time confronted it with wide-ranging ethical conflicts. In order to provide guidelines for making these difficult decisions, the German Ethics Council has published an ad hoc recommendation paper titled “Solidarity and Responsibility during the Coronavirus Crisis”. Renowned brain researcher Prof. Katrin Amunts of Jülich’s Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine is Vice-Chair of the German Ethics Council and explains the recommendation’s key points in the following interview.
"Billions of molecules against the coronavirus proteins"
Scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich are investigating the novel coronavirus. Two experts are Prof. Giulia Rossetti and Prof. Paolo Carloni from the Jülich Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine, Computational Biomedicin. In this interview they explain their research within the EXSCALATE4CORONAVIRUS project.
The project E4C
„Our Existing Basic Research Provides a Solid Starting Point for Further Work“
Preventing the coronavirus from binding to host cells and fusing with them, and thus from spreading through the body, is the focus of current research by the structural biochemists at Jülich’s Institute of Biological Information Processing (IBI). More precisely, they are developing a ligand – a specific binding molecule – that displaces a certain binding protein of the virus from the receptor of the host cell. An interview with Prof. Dieter Willbold, the director of the institute
Mathematical models of the dynamics of the corona outbreak
"As a matter of urgency, we are now bringing together experts from our scientific network to obtain precise data on the virus’ spread and drug development as quickly as possible. At the moment, I expect that we will have initial results soon," says Prof. Thomas Lippert, Director of the Jülich Supercomputing Centre (JSC) at the Helmholtz website.
Article on the Helmholtz website
Further information on the contributions of the Helmholtz Association to corona research
https://www.helmholtz.de (in German)