Rwandan scientist joins Covid-19 research efforts

Real image of SARS-CoV-2 virions taken by cryoelectron microscopy. US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

During these times of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rwandan clinicians, biomedical engineers and other health care professionals are on the frontline fighting the virus.

But what are the local research scientists up to?  


Well, Dr Uri Mbonye, a Rwandan molecular biologist, is one of the scientists who have joined a global effort to investigate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.


Dr Mbonye is part of a research team currently studying the processes and events that led up to COVID-19 disease pathogenesis, because currently there are a lot of unknowns about the virus that scientists across the world are racing to understand.


Molecular biologist Dr Uri Mbonye. Courtesy photo.

He is currently studying four protein components of COVID-19 virus with the intention of achieving the development of more effective and less expensive tests, as well as informing further processes for development of the treatment for the virus.

Scientists generally believe that the current crisis presents a unique opportunity to prepare large repositories of biological fluid samples collected from patients infected with COVID-19. 

These patient samples can then be analysed in research studies to advance science and medicine, and even to prepare for future related pandemics.

Dr Mbonye is a research scientist currently based in the United States with a research specialization in the eradication of the biological form of HIV that cannot be cured with current antiretroviral therapy.

However, when the pandemic hit the world, his research switched to investigating COVID-19 just like many other scientists across the globe.

The researcher, who’s also a member of the Rwanda Academy of Sciences (RAS), says the current research he’s engaged in is intended to achieve the development of more accurate and rapid testing methods.

“As you may well be aware the currently available antibody test kits (where blood samples are taken and analysed for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies) are not performing well in terms of accuracy of detection,” he says.

“The other form of testing which is based on the detection of viral RNA (RT-PCR testing), has proven useful for testing the majority of confirmed cases but is quite expensive and cannot be feasibly utilized for large-scale testing,” he adds.

Currently, countries scrambling to test hundreds of thousands of people to see if they are infected by the coronavirus use a technique called PCR, which looks directly for the genetic material of the virus in a nasal or throat swab.

It can tell people with troublesome symptoms they are infected.

However, a swab cannot tell you if you have had the disease in the past – which means it’s hard to understand the full degree of its spread, or whether large numbers of people have already been infected and recovered without showing symptoms.

The answer to this is a different kind of test, one that can look at people’s blood to find the informative traces that show if somebody’s immune system has been in contact with the virus. This procedure is known as a serological test.

His research also seeks to inform discovery of antibodies that can be used to neutralize the virus and prevent it from gaining entry into host lung cells.  

Dr Mbonye’s research

The scientist says Case Western Reserve University, where he’s carrying out his research, in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic has recently created a COVID research task force in order to meet a global urgent need for a critical research capacity to address the pathogenesis and treatment of COVID-19.

The task force is a collaboration of virologists, immunologists and molecular biologists brought together to gain a better understanding of the pathogenic mechanisms of coronavirus.

It also seeks to understand the immune responses that are elicited by the infected host, and why some patients are able to recover from COVID-19 or remain asymptomatic while others are drastically impacted and even succumb to the disease.

“As a molecular biologist who is part of this large consortium, my research on coronavirus specifically deals with studying four of the major protein components of the virus, namely the Spike (S), Membrane (M) Envelope (E), and Nucleocapsid (N),” he told The New Times.

The protein components he mentioned above help the novel coronaviruses to grow and multiply.

To understand the magnitude of this research, one needs to understand how SARS-CoV-2 infects a human body.

At the moment, it’s clear that COVID-19 is a respiratory infection – the virus is transmitted through the nasal passageway and into the lungs where it infects lung alveolar epithelial cells.

However, viruses can still be isolated in the brain at autopsy – and no one really knows how the infection gets to the brain.

Mbonye says SARS-CoV-2 genome (genetic material) is more than three times the size of HIV and its manner of infecting cells and the cell types involved are not fully understood.

The scientific work that researchers like Mbonye are doing are aimed at cracking the virus and understanding every aspect of it, because then that forms a basis upon which therapies and vaccines can be developed.

Mbonye’s research involves isolating the COVID-19 virus proteins and then purifying them biochemically with the ultimate intention of developing antigen-based tests that will more accurately, more rapidly and feasibly test large numbers of people for COVID-19.

Importance of study

“By screening patients using these proteins, especially those found on the surface of the virus (S, M and E), reactive antibodies can be identified which upon their isolation, characterization and eventual scale-up can be used to develop an antigen-based test for the easy and rapid detection of COVID-19,” he explains.

This, he adds, can also help to determine who is infected and who has recovered from the disease. 

That’s not all, the reactive antibodies can be further screened to identify antibody species that are able to effectively neutralize the virus and prevent it from gaining entry into host cells.

This could lead to the development of the treatment of COVID-19.

“Thus far I have succeeded in isolating one of the four proteins (M). Currently, I’m testing an alternate expression vector system to achieve successful expression of the other three proteins,” Mbonye says.

He hopes to collaborate with local scientists and institutions to help Rwandans battle the pandemic.

Mbonye also insists that funding to research scientists is essentially important because that determines how fast advancement of science and treatment of COVID-19 can be achieved in any country.

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