USF Health researchers use firefly glow enzyme to better understand COVID-19, risk groups

Posted at 5:47 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 17:47:39-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Researchers at USF Health are lighting up their study in the hope to learn more about COVID-19 and how it could affect different people.

Dr. Tom McDonald, a USF Health professor of Medicine in Cardiology and Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology, explains rather than handling the live virus in the study, researchers are using a safer, COVID-19 pseudotype, which also holds the same enzyme that gives fireflies their glow, called luciferase.

“I like to think of it as a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” said McDonald. “It’s a good surrogate for whether or not the virus can get into a particular cell type, and you can actually quantify it. You say it gets in more, it gets in less, that type of comparison is easily made with the firefly luciferase.”

Dr. McDonald explains by adding that virus to lung, heart, and vascular cells, they can see how well the virus gets into those cells and which ones are vulnerable.

“When you have this, they glow in the dark,” said McDonald. “You don’t have any background noise here so that your ability to precisely quantify how much of the virus is getting in by this technique is very precise.”

The study may then point to who may be more susceptible to the virus. McDonald says experimenting could last a few months, but in the end, the idea is to use the live virus in the study.

“We can compare whether or not there’s differences in the infectivity for males versus females,” said McDonald. “We can look at whether or not there’s differences among cells that came from African Americans, Latina Americans, Asians, and Caucasians. And then finally, whether or not if we treat these cells with these blood pressure agents, ACE inhibitors and receptor blockers, whether or not this affects the ability of the virus to enter these cells.”