Chemistry professor Kenneth NgChemistry professor Kenneth Ng will study the proteins that manage how coronaviruses replicate and infect, to prepare to battle emerging variants.

Researcher to study COVID variants surfacing in Windsor-Essex

A new health research grant will allow a UWindsor professor to closely study the proteins that manage how coronaviruses replicate and infect, to help prepare for the development of new vaccines and drugs to battle emerging COVID variants.

Kenneth Ng, a chemistry and biochemistry professor, received a $50,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) COVID variant grant, supplementing a previous COVID-19 therapeutics grant awarded to Dr. Ng and his research partner, Chang-Chun Ling of the University of Calgary. It will allow the team to work closely with the wastewater surveillance and saliva testing research projects led by UWindsor researchers Mike McKay, Lisa Porter, and Yufeng Tong.

There are now several vaccines available for COVID-19, but there are concerns that they will be less effective against some of the coronavirus variants expected to emerge in the future.

“The current vaccines available for COVID-19 are extremely effective, but since the virus continues to evolve over time, it is likely that updated vaccines and drug treatments will be needed at some point,” Ng says.

“In the future, as new variants of concern continue to evolve and spread, we will likely need new or updated vaccines to deal with multiple changes to viral proteins that will evade the antibodies our bodies have developed to fight the COVID-19 viruses currently in circulation. The best way to manage the changes in these viruses may turn out to be similar to how we update the flu shot each year to make each new vaccine more effective against the latest flu variants.”

Ng will be modelling and studying the structures of the spike protein and polymerase from the sequences of COVID viruses found in Windsor-Essex wastewater. The spike protein allows the virus to infect cells and is the target of the antibodies developed through vaccination, and the polymerase is the main enzyme controlling how viruses replicate.

The three-dimensional models and lab studies of these proteins can help identify mutations that might make new variants more infectious or more likely to evade current vaccines.

“To figure out which variants are of greater concern, we can model the 3D structures of these key proteins and do lab experiments to see how changes affect these proteins at the molecular level,” he says. “Combined with info on how quickly new variants are spreading, we can use this information to identify some of the changes that will likely generate more dangerous viruses.”

With his research, Ng joins a UWindsor consortium of ongoing cross-disciplinary coronavirus research projects. The grant is built upon a collaboration with chemistry and biochemistry’s Dr. Tong and biomedical sciences’ Dr. Porter and their COVID Surveillance Platform, as well as the wastewater surveillance project run by Dr. McKay, director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.

“Our work can help interpret some of the new sequence information discovered from the saliva screening and wastewater testing projects, projects that will become increasingly important for quickly detecting new variants that might develop in the future as restrictions ease and as students return to campus in the fall,” says Ng.

Viruses mutate all the time, he says, but fortunately most of these changes are not making the viruses more dangerous.

“Our work is focused on detecting the rare but very important changes that could make some new variants more difficult to manage and the idea is to plan ahead and be able to understand why some variants can cause problems so we are more prepared and not caught off-guard.”

It can take some time before you can see how quickly or widely new variants can spread, says Ng, so the more you understand about the viruses at the molecular level, the better you can respond.

“We all complement each other as researchers, from saliva testing to wastewater sampling to molecular studies — by working together, we can make an important contribution to deal with a very challenging problem,” says Ng.

“I think that we all hope this supplement award will help provide the additional support needed to monitor the evolution of the virus as the university and society reopens, and we are very excited to be part of this important work.”

—Sara Elliott