Building a Safer Version of SARS-CoV-2 for Research

Written by Quincy Rosemarie (Sugden Lab)
Illustrations by Rebecca Hutcheson (Sugden Lab)

When the state-wide Stay-At-Home order for Wisconsin was issued back in March of last year, all of us in the Sugden Lab had to pause our experiments and shut down all lab activities.

The Sugden Lab is no stranger to viruses. Before the pandemic, our research focuses on Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), a virus most well-known for causing infectious mononucleosis (mono) as well as several types of cancers. When the pandemic hit, our mentor, Bill Sugden, proposed that we pivot the skills we have been using in studying EBV to contribute to the worldwide effort on SARS-CoV-2 research. All of us agreed, and we spent our time in lockdown reading up on coronaviruses and discussing experiment ideas. When the university allowed research activities to resume, we came back to lab with a new project dealing with the new, pandemic-causing virus.

As soon as it became clear that an emerging virus was becoming a global threat, scientific communities throughout the world geared up to study it. This makes sense; the more we can learn about the virus, the more likely we can have a solution for this pandemic and be prepared for future ones. Working with SARS-CoV-2 can be dangerous, and only laboratories with particular safety precautions are allowed to handle the virus. At UW-Madison, only two laboratories are approved to do SARS-CoV-2 research. Other laboratories can only work with parts of the virus, but not the complete virus. This limits the number and kinds of SARS-CoV-2 studies that researchers can do—not ideal in a race against an ongoing pandemic. What if we can make a version of SARS-CoV-2 that is safer to handle? More laboratories would be able to study the virus and contribute useful new knowledge.

The danger in studying SARS-CoV-2 is that the people working with it could get accidentally infected. When the virus replicates in the body and produce more viruses, the infected person is at risk for coming down with the disease, COVID-19, and could pass the infection to another person. This infection risk is the reason behind the higher safety level requirement. Our idea is to have a version of SARS-CoV-2 that is missing some of its structural proteins, causing it to be unable to produce new viruses. This “defective” version of the virus can infect cells, but meets a dead end in the cell without being able to make more viruses. This system provides both a safety measure—by making the virus productively impotent—and a way to study the virus in its near-complete form, thus opening opportunities for more researchers to study SARS-CoV-2.

As we work on this project, we are also adjusting to a “new normal”. Parts of it can be inconvenient: working non-overlapping shifts for safety reasons, crucial reagents and resources delayed or unavailable, and so on. We were very fortunate in McArdle that our administrative staff and specialists continued their support so that we could maintain essential activities during lockdown and then resume research with minimal mishap. As time goes on, parts of the “new normal” can also be gratifying. With virtual meetings, it became easier to join conferences and seminars. Perhaps most fascinating of all, we were able to witness in real time the growth of the SARS-CoV-2 research field as it expands with new information at a scale and rapidity we don’t normally find at other times.

The pandemic has brought changes in our daily lives, and it surely has changed our lives in the lab as well. At the same time, it highlights how the world science community could come together in response to a real-time global emergency. As we do our part by continuing our work on developing a safer version of SARS-CoV-2, we look forward to sharing it with other researchers, and we may all benefit from a better understanding of this virus.

To hear more, please join Rebecca Hutcheson from the Sugden lab who will be giving a related virtual presentation discussing this project for UW-Madison’s Wednesday Nite at the Lab on February 24nd at 7pm. Registration to attend the virtual event is free and the talk will be accessed at:

After the event, a recording of Rebecca’s talk will be posted to the WN@tL YouTube channel, accessible here: